Unfunded state scholarships frustrate local recipients

Louisa Clark will have to find another way to pay for college and her full-time biotechnology studies because of the state’s indefinite suspension of a 27-year-old scholarship program.

Clark, a Tumwater resident, was one of five students at Bates Technical College in Tacoma who was awarded the Washington Award for Vocational Excellence, known as WAVE.

It should have paid for her last year at Bates and her first year at The Evergreen State College, where she hopes to get a master’s in public administration and environmental studies.

State budget cuts led to the program’s suspension, which means 128 WAVE honorees from around Washington will lose funding for college and, in some cases, their only shot at pursuing higher education.

“Initially I was indifferent,” Clark said. “I was like, ‘Oh that’s too bad.’ In the scheme of things, we all have to make sacrifices.”

However, her frustration grew as her worries of paying for college amplified. She commutes to Tacoma daily to attend Bates while working two part-time jobs and taking care of her 9-month-old daughter.

WAVE started in 1984. Since then, more than 3,000 students have received a scholarship.

A student attending a public technical college was previously awarded up to $3,549; a student attending a public community college was awarded up to $3,135. If a student was attending a four-year university, he or she was awarded $6,081 to $8,592, depending on the university.

The state will save about $2 million a year by suspending WAVE for the next two years, said Marina Parr, a spokeswoman for the Workforce Training & Education Coordinating Board.

“It’s very disappointing to have to suspend those programs,” said Rep. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, a member of the House Education Appropriations & Oversight committee.

But he said it was the right thing to do. The committee’s top priority, he said, was to “award those who already have the scholarship,” even if that meant new winners would not be awarded.

“I wish we were in a situation where we didn’t have to do that,” he said. “There’s a lot of very difficult cuts, and I think our approach was the right one, frustratingly.

“(WAVE) is a good solid program. I would hope we’re in position to reinstate it next biennium,” Dammeier said.

Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, said that by cutting off the smaller scholarships, lawmakers were able to increase the state need grant by about $120 million.

“One of the things I’m working on is revisiting all of the scholarship programs,” Seaquist said.

WAVE was one of several higher education cuts that came at a time when other parts of the higher education safety net are also fraying.

Clark has been paying for tuition in part through the federal Pell Grant. However, the maximum annual student Pell grant is dropping from $5,500 to $4,705 for the 2011-2012 academic year. In addition, about 1.7 million U.S. students will no longer be eligible.

The Bates Technical College Foundation is making a gesture to its five WAVE winners by awarding them $250 each.

“I think it’s really cool they did that,” Clark said, “to give some acknowledgement.

“I try not to think about (what) could have been,” Clark said. “I’ll keep applying for scholarships and saving everything I got. I’ll get it done.”

Like Clark, Clover Park Technical College graduate Jim Tolson was awarded the WAVE scholarship but won’t see a penny of it.

Tolson of Puyallup, who plans to attend the University of Washington Tacoma next fall, was supposed to get a two-year scholarship through WAVE but now will have to find other means to attend.

“When we heard he won, I cried,” said Tolson’s wife, Marsha.

The tears weren’t of joy, but of sadness and frustration. The couple learned at the same time that the scholarship was unfunded.

“If he had not won, we would have said, ‘OK, let’s move on, let’s find something else.’ But it’s really hard to win and then not win,” she said.

“We’re not meeting our obligations to educate our children,” Tolson added. “Every time the (state) budget comes out, it cuts more in education.”

Kym Pleger, director of college relations at Bates, agreed.

“It’s so unfortunate that in this declining economy, the students who are trying so hard to make the economy move forward can’t,” Pleger said.

Stephanie Kim: 253-597-8692 stephanie.kim@thenews tribune.com