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Liias sponsors slate of bills expanding access to college

OLYMPIA – Continuing his efforts to make the college dream a reality for more students across the state, State Sen. Marko Liias (D-Lynnwood) is sponsoring several bills during the 2020 legislative session designed to remove barriers and expand access to college.

“Obtaining a post-secondary education has become increasingly important for getting a high-paying, in-demand job in this 21st century global economy,” Liias said. “We need to look at more ways to help Washington students get into and pay for college.”

Washington “Next Step” Pilot Program

Senate Bill 6542 would open more doors for Washington students looking to continue their education after high school by moving Washington toward adoption of a “Next Step” program modeled after a similar program in Idaho.

“For too many people, a college education can seem like a dream that’s out of reach,” said Liias. “The reality is anyone who wants to go to college should have that opportunity. For some people, getting that acceptance letter from a local college could be the nudge they need to take that next step.” 

Idaho has seen growth in student enrollment under its Next Step Program, which automatically admits high school seniors to public colleges and universities. Students receive a letter listing the institutions that have accepted them and giving them information about state and federal financial aid options.

SB 6542 creates a pilot program for two school districts – one from each side of the Cascades – to help students navigate existing automatic admissions programs at institutions in Washington and study the impact on enrollment. It also brings together an advisory committee to develop a statewide automatic admissions policy.

Statewide Child Savings Accounts

College savings plans like Washington’s GET and DreamAhead programs help families save for future college expenses for their kids. However, for many families, the financial commitments for these existing programs can seem out of reach.

Several states have enacted programs that automatically enroll children born in the state into a savings account program to help families save for college. Research shows that low-income and moderate-income students who have children’s educational savings accounts are three times more likely to enroll in college and four times more likely to graduate college.

SB 6577 calls for a study of ways to create a child college savings program in Washington. The study would examine issues like automatic enrollment, initial seed deposits, progressive incentive structures, resources for foster youth, and collaboration with philanthropic and private-sector organizations.

“The growing body of research on child savings accounts tells a powerful story of the positive impacts we can have on educational and health outcomes through a small investment,” said Jennifer Tran of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center. “SB 6577 moves us forward in creating a strong and equitable statewide program that will impact kids’ lifelong trajectory and generate lasting benefits for kids and families.”

Undocumented Student Support Loan Program

In 2014, the Legislature enacted the Washington State Dream Act, opening the doors to a college education for thousands of undocumented Washington state students by making them eligible for state financial aid. Undocumented students are typically not eligible for federal student financial aid.

SB 6561 would complement the 2014 act by creating a state-funded and state-administered student loan program to help undocumented students who are ineligible for federal financial aid programs cover the full cost of a degree.

“We know that our undocumented students want to pursue the same opportunities and want to help the state meet the degree attainment goals we’ve set for ourselves,” said Liias in his public testimony in support of SB 6561. “But there are critical barriers to them in the way. We’ve done work as a state to clear our state-based barriers, but one big barrier that still exists is a lack of access to student loans.” [Click here for MP3 audio link]

SBs 6542, 6577 and 6561 had a public hearing in the Senate Higher Education & Workforce Development Committee on Thursday.

SB 6142 – A Common Application for All Public Colleges and Universities

In an effort to reduce of the complexities facing teens, young adults, and other potential applicants trying to get into college, SB 6142 would direct the Washington State Student Achievement Council to create a common application for admission to Washington’s public colleges and universities.

SB 6142 had a public hearing in the Senate Higher Education & Workforce Development Committee on Jan. 16.

A “companion” bill sponsored by Rep. Mari Leavitt (D-University Place), HB 2514, is expected to receive a vote next week in the House Committee on College & Workforce Development.

All bills have until Feb. 7 to be approved by their respective committees to be eligible for further consideration this session.

The 2020 legislative session is scheduled to adjourn for the year on March 12.