Education

Crisis goes to college

Counselors at Lincoln High School in Tacoma are proud of Gabriel Dumbrique, a senior who’s taking Advanced Placement classes and calculus, maintaining a 3.8 GPA and leading Key Club, a community service group.

In the fall, Dumbrique will be the first in his family to go to college, and he’s a poster child for the school’s effort to get more underrepresented, lower-income students into accelerated programs and off to a university when they graduate.

Counselor Colleen Philbrook said she had little doubt he would get a full-ride scholarship from Washington State University when he was accepted there this spring.

Then he didn’t.

“It’s been shocking – there’s no other word for it,” Philbrook said. “We have such a high-achieving group of seniors this year. We thought colleges would be clamoring for them.”

Instead of the full scholarship Dumbrique had been hoping for, he got some grants and about $9,000 per year in loans that he’ll have to figure out how to pay back.

He said he still plans to go to WSU in the fall, major in psychology and eventually go on to graduate school. Now he’s applying for local scholarships so he won’t have too much debt.

“I was so certain that I wouldn’t have any loans going to college,” Dumbrique said. “But now college is so expensive I know I’m going to be paying it off after I graduate.”

This coming school year is expected to mark a record low in the proportion of funding that the state provides for higher education in Washington. The combination of a state budget crisis, a sluggish economy and high enrollment means many incoming college freshmen are realizing it’s not just a matter of working hard enough to get into a good state school anymore – more than ever, you also have to figure out how to pay for it.

With the state Legislature locked in budget negotiations after the second week of an overtime session, incoming freshmen around the state had to choose where they’ll go to college next year on May 1 under a cloud of uncertainty, knowing they could face double-digit tuition increases and fewer financial aid options than before.

BUDGET CRUNCH

In budget proposals in the Legislature, part of an effort to close a $5.3 billion shortfall over two years, higher education takes some of the biggest cuts. Unlike K-12 education, it’s not protected in the Washington Constitution as a core responsibility of the state government, so it’s a place lawmakers can take money from to patch big holes in the budget.

Legislators haven’t settled on a final budget, but proposals from the House, the Senate and the governor include tuition increases that range between 11 percent and 16 percent per year for four-year schools.

They all preserve the state’s biggest financial aid program, the State Need Grant for low-income students, and they fund it in proportion to tuition increases. Some proposals cut the state’s work study, though, and the need grant increases won’t be enough to cover rising enrollment and growing student need.

Also, the federal Pell Grants that students with financial need can use to pay for school aren’t going to increase this year, despite the rising cost of tuition.

There are institutional forms of financial aid to help lower-income students cover tuition, however. The University of Washington has a program called Husky Promise, and WSU has Cougar Commitment, both of which cover all tuition costs for students with high need.

Even so, high school seniors are getting financial aid offers that include a lot of unsubsidized loans, said Lincoln High School graduation advisor David Droge, and it makes his students nervous.

“We are at the end, what should be celebration time, and there’s all of this financial uncertainty,” he said.

WSU’s financial aid director, Chio Flores, said her office probably won’t be able to cover all of the financial need students have at WSU this year. Because of ongoing debates in the Legislature, she said, she doesn’t know whether work study will exist at all next year and how big the overall cuts will be to the university’s budget.

“It’s pretty unnerving for my staff and the work we do with students,” Flores said.

Flores and Megan Davis, associate financial aid director at the University of Washington, said they’ve sent out preliminary aid awards, which is what they usually do while they wait for the Legislature to decide exactly how much to spend on state universities and financial aid programs.

This year is somewhat unprecedented, though, they said, because of the magnitude of proposed cuts and the increase in student financial need and enrollment.

Rachelle Sharpe, director of state financial assistance for the Higher Education Coordinating Board, said she’s seen applications for financial aid increase by about 57 percent over the last three years. She said the amount of need met through work study, grants and loans fell from 90 percent in the 2007-08 school year to 85 percent in 2009-10.

About 22,000 state students who were eligible for the State Need Grant program did not receive it in the 2009-10 school year because the program ran out of money, Sharpe said.

TUITION RISING

Another source of financial uncertainty for schools and students is a proposal by Rep. Reuven Carlyle, a Seattle Democrat who has spearheaded an effort in the Legislature to give four-year state institutions tuition-setting authority.

In the past, the Legislature has told state colleges and universities how much they can increase tuition per year, but under Carlyle’s proposal, House Bill 1795, four-year schools would set their own rates.

He said he expected tuition-setting authority to pass the Legislature this session.

He said there’s also agreement in the Legislature that something needs to be done to mitigate the effects of higher tuition for middle-class families. His bill includes a provision that would extend financial aid eligibility to 125 percent of the state median family income, whichwould be about $101,000 per year for a family of four.

Funding for the expansion would come from tuition dollars, some of which universities would have to put aside for financial aid if they decide to raise tuition above a certain threshold.

Because financial aid eligibility could increase in the coming year, Carlyle said, students who haven’t been able to receive financial aid in the past should still fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which schools use to award national, state and institutional financial aid.

“We’re holding students to a higher level of accountability for their own financial well-being,” Carlyle said. “This is the era we’re living in.”

UNCERTAINTY REIGNS

University representatives said they still don’t know what tuition increases will look like if the Legislature authorizes them to set the rates because lawmakers haven’t settled on how much state money they’ll cut from higher education budgets.

Under existing budget proposals, the cuts range from $446 million to over $600 million, so university officials aren’t sure yet how big a decline in state funding they’ll have to backfill with tuition dollars.

WSU spokesman Robert Strenge said his school is looking at yearly tuition increases of 12 percent to 16 percent and planning a big growth in the size of its freshman class to bring in as much tuition money as possible.

Paul Jenny, vice provost for planning and budgeting at the UW, said her institution didn’t have an estimate for how much it will charge next year, but tuition would have to increase about 20.5 percent per year for the next two years to cover all of the cuts proposed by the governor. Under that scenario, tuition at the UW would reach about $13,300 for the 2012-13 school year, up from $6,802 in 2008.

The UW’s decision on how much tuition to charge will depend heavily on whether Carlyle’s bill passes and if it requires the school to send some tuition dollars back to financial aid, Jenny said.

If the legislative session drags into June, students could have to wait until after the July meeting of the UW Board of Regents before they find out how much they’ll have to pay for school in the fall.

That’s making some current students at state schools nervous as they try to plan their finances for the next few years.

UW sophomore Shelby Woods said she’s been accepted to a summer program to go to Belgium and study the European Union, but with her tuition scholarship expiring soon, she’s counting on state and federal financial aid to be able to afford both the summer credits and tuition in the fall.

She’s relied on Pell Grants and a State Need Grant in the past, she said, but she hasn’t heard how much financial assistance she’ll get next year.

In the meantime, she’ll work more hours at her job in Pike Place Market, but Woods said she hoped legislators would decide to reinvest in Washington’s higher education system soon.

“The purpose of having a state university is that it is funded by the state,” she said.

Katie Schmidt: 360-786-1826

katie.schmidt@thenewstribune.com

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