Washington’s economy may be showing signs of recovery, but demand for student financial aid remains at record levels. For some, that suggests that successful efforts to encourage more students from less-affluent families to pursue college degrees and certificates will keep demand for financial aid high, even as the economy continues to strengthen.
State leaders have increased State Need Grant (SNG) appropriations to offset the impact of rapidly rising tuition costs for students who receive SNGs. However, appropriations have been insufficient to serve all students eligible for SNGs, especially in the past couple of years. SNG is the primary state-funded financial aid program in Washington.
While about 72,000 low-income students were served during the 2010-11 academic year, another 26,000 SNG-eligible students did not receive funding, according to HECB statistics.
Overall demand for financial aid has continued to grow rapidly, from 78,000 SNG-eligible students in 2008-09 to more than 101,000 in 2010-11. The number of unserved students also has risen sharply — from 5,500 in 2008-09 to nearly 26,000 last year.
Rachelle Sharpe, the HECB’s Director of Student Financial Assistance, told Board members at a meeting last week that she expects the final figures for 2011-12 will show continuing strong demand for financial aid. In March, the number of completed Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) — required to determine eligibility for financial aid — was 19 percent higher than at the same time a year ago, Sharpe said.
HECB Executive Director Don Bennett told the Board he believes the numbers suggest that Washington may be experiencing a fundamental shift in demand for financial aid that will not fully abate with the end of the recession. One reason could be the increasing numbers of low-income Washington families whose children have been encouraged to attend college through programs such as the College Bound Scholarship and GEAR UP.
Washington’s Strategic Master Plan for Higher Education calls for significantly increasing the number of Washington residents who earn degrees and certificates. An update of the master plan approved by the HECB late last year recommended a renewed commitment to the State Need Grant program.
Unless more students from low-income and racially or ethnically underrepresented groups attend college and complete degrees, the state will be unable to meet its workforce needs in the years ahead. To make it possible for these students to participate in postsecondary education, income-based financial aid must continue to grow.
Meanwhile, increased interest in the State Need Grant Program prompted the Legislature this year to order two reports on the program. They will examine current SNG policies and program effectiveness in increasing access and degree attainment among low-income students.
House Bill 2483 requires the new Washington Student Achievement Council to report on outcomes of students receiving State Need Grants, the impacts on meeting state higher education goals, and options for prioritizing SNG awards.
HB 2483 also establishes the new council and more broadly outlines its duties and responsibilities. The council will replace the HECB on July 1, and the HECB staff will be transferred to the new agency. The council’s SNG report will be due in December 2014.
The supplemental operating budget signed by the Governor today also requires a second SNG report, which will be prepared by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP). It will address whether the program has increased access and degree attainment and whether funding is used efficiently to reach goals. WSIPP’s preliminary report is due in December, with the final due in December 2013.
Sharpe said her staff has convened a large and diverse workgroup of higher education stakeholders to begin examining key SNG issues and policies in light of the state’s higher education goals and fiscal environment. That group should be ready to report to the council this fall, she said.