State Need Grant deserves a boost

Washington’s universities, community colleges and technical colleges are joining forces on a few common budget goals in the next year. One important focus is on the State Need Grant program.

This valuable piece of Washington’s investment in higher education provides tuition aid to nearly 70,000 low-income students.

Institutions as large as from the University of Washington and as small as those in the community and technical college system are jointly seeking to expand the program to cover all 93,000 eligible students.

Grants for these students represent an investment in the state’s future workforce. Students range from recent high school graduates to older adults.

These also are individuals who otherwise may not receive the academic or workplace training needed to step into the workforce and up the ladder of opportunity

The catch is the same as ever: cost. To get the program fully funded to cover another 24,000 students would cost about $100 million, according to data kept by the Washington State Student Achievement Council.

But as UW president Ana Mari Cauce told The Olympian Editorial Board recently, “Higher education is the linchpin for the future prosperity of our entire state.”

Cauce added: “We are looking to the state to keep its promise (to students) … To have it be empty is I think the worst of all situations.’’

On the bright side, the region’s economy is growing overall, driven by strong growth in Seattle and central Puget Sound. On the down side, high jobless rates remain in many rural areas.

Also, the cost of fully funding basic education by 2018, which the state Supreme Court ruling in the McCleary case demands, could require a boost of $1.75 billion per year into K-12 alone. And state employees are due for raises.

So the $2.1 billion expected in reserves at the start of the next biennium in July could be eaten up before higher education ever sits down to the table.

Balancing all of these needs won’t be easy. But lawmakers must own up to the challenges faced by higher education and the growing high-tech economy.

That is not to say lawmakers haven’t tried.

After tuition shot up after 2009 to help balance state budgets, the Legislature put a cap on tuition hikes — in 2013. Two sessions ago, led by Senate Republicans, the Legislature made Washington the first state to actually cut tuition.

Democrats including Gov. Jay Inslee eventually embraced the tuition cuts and helped pass them into law, but not before the GOP agreed to include community colleges in the tuition cut.

Importantly, the GOP also agreed to raise new money to help defray the lost tuition dollars.

Gov. Inslee doesn’t put out his budget until after mid-December. But we hope he and the Legislature don’t forget the investment in economic opportunity that is represented by the State Need Grant program.

They also must remember that Washington is still among the lower third of states for tax burden when measured against incomes.

A generation of students is depending on wise choices that may include new resources.