Washington lawmakers propose free community college

By Walker Orenstein, Associated Press | Posted - Jan. 19, 2016 at 6:01 p.m.


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OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Tuition at community and technical colleges in Washington would be free for state residents without a bachelor's degree under a proposal announced Tuesday by a group of Democratic lawmakers.

Some qualifying students could also get a stipend for books and other expenses based on family income, lawmakers said at a news conference. The plan would apply to part-time students, too.

"We know that a high school diploma, while still foundational for every student, is simply not enough," said Sen. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle.

A way to pay for the free tuition hasn't been offered yet. It's estimated by nonpartisan staff at the Legislature to cost between $94 million and $105 million in 2017, if implemented, and the price tag would increase if more students enroll in the state's community and technical colleges. Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, floated the idea of closing tax exemptions as one way to pay for tuition money.

But there aren't infinite tax exemptions to close, especially if lawmakers want to eliminate tax loopholes to increase money for other legislative priorities such as basic education and the state's mental health system, said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Republican from Ritzville.

"How are they going to pay for it, I mean really?" he said of the proposal, deemed the "Washington promise program," at a separate news conference on Tuesday.

Democrats stressed there would be a return on investing in free community college when there are more Washington students qualified for skilled jobs. They estimated the plan would increase enrollment in community colleges by 5 percent to 9 percent.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, emphasized the proposal would be a boon for middle-class people who don't quite qualify for financial aid. The program would give students money to cover what all other sources of financial aid, like the federal Pell grant program, don't pay for.

"There are a lot of people who are not rich and not poor who are going to be helped by this," he said.

At least two Republicans, Rep. Hans Zeiger from Puyallup and Sen. Michael Baumgartner from Spokane, will co-sponsor the Washington promise program bills in the House and Senate.

Efforts around the country to make community college free for students have had varying results.

Last year, President Barack Obama proposed making community college free, but the proposal has not been implemented by Congress.

Three states have created free community college programs since 2014: Minnesota, Oregon and Tennessee, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. At least 11 other states introduced legislation to create similar programs in 2015.

The Legislature cut tuition at the state's four year colleges and universities last session by 15 to 20 percent over two years and by 5 percent for two-year schools. That cut was a legislative priority for Republicans.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Walker Orenstein

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