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Q&A: Sen. Emily Randall on higher education

Sen. Emily Randall (D-Bremerton) serves as chair of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee. In that role, she’s thinking of ways to increase education opportunity for Washingtonians who are interested in attending college or technical schools. Education is personal for Sen. Randall, who grew up in a union family, and was the first in her family to attend a four-year college. 

We spoke with Sen. Randall, and talked about bills that passed last session, financial aid, and tying together technical schools with associate’s degrees.  

Aaron Kunkler: What issues are you thinking about regarding higher education? 

Sen. Emily Randall: I think to frame where we’re looking at making progress in 2022, I want to step back a little bit first. In 2019 — and then strengthened in 2020 — we passed some of the country’s strongest financial aid policy in the Workforce Education Investment Act. And then we entered a pandemic, and students who were already hard to reach to inform about financial aid opportunities were even harder to reach. 

In the 2020 session, I passed some policy to help students more easily complete the FAFSA. We invested some money in the budget in building a stronger community base that works in partnership with schools to help students complete the FAFSA, but I think we’re going to have to return to investing more money in building up those networks. Because what we’ve seen during the pandemic is some schools have good enrollment, but those underrepresented students from poor families who don’t have a role model who have gone to college before — students from families like mine — are less and less likely to apply for that financial aid and go enroll in college, because they’re dealing with all of the challenges that all of us are dealing with. 

So I think zeroing in on those disparities, and figuring out how we can better support those students to get into college in the first place, and then how we can continue to increase supports, for basic needs for students navigating college during this challenging time with the increased pressures of being a parent or a caregiver or working part or full-time as they go to school.

AK: What policies are you thinking of examining?

ER: I think we’ll end up doing a lot in the budget that may not necessarily need additional authorizing policy. We already authorized pilot programs for housing and food insecure students, and students who came to college from the foster system. One policy that I’ve been really excited to work on this summer is around connecting adult learners with continuing education. That’s in partnership with Sen. Keiser, working on strengthening our apprenticeship systems in Washington. 

We have great apprenticeship programs, including through the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Olympic College here in my district. But most apprenticeships, unlike the ones at PSNS and OC, don’t graduate students with an associate’s degree as well, and I think that’s a gap. That’s an area where we need to be working alongside our community and technical college system, our apprenticeship programs and the four-year institutions that may take these students as transfers later in their career to ensure that all of that time they’ve spent in applied learning and classroom learning, affords them — in addition to their journeyman certificate and apprenticeships — so that should they choose to go back to school later folks have that ability.

AK: Community colleges are a significant entry point into higher education for many folks. What are you thinking about in terms of supporting them?

ER: We did some great work last year, particularly Sen. Liias, as a community college employee himself, has been doing some great work with our community college systems to invest more money in those systems that support such a huge percentage of Washington State students, especially adult learners. We know that the average age of students in our community and technical college system is around 30, and we want to make sure that those pathways are supported for adult learners as well. I think we’ll probably be looking particularly in nursing and health care fields, and how we can support those faculty … I think this pandemic has shown us even more how fragile our pipeline of nurses and health care workers are, and how much pressure folks are in as frontline, first responders, and health care workers during the pandemic. We still are not educating enough folks to fill the need. 

AK: Sen. Randall told me that while final enrollment numbers aren’t quite in for this quarter, there’s a mix of enrollment patterns across the state. At institutions like the University of Washington and Evergreen State College, there’s been an increase, while places like Washington State University are continuing to see declines. Why could that be?

ER: For first generation students, and for students of color for whom we’re seeing higher attrition rates from students who are previously enrolled, folks are choosing to maybe work full-time to help support their families or make other choices that allow them more flexibility. You know that student parents who are making choices about childcare or being a full-time student continues to be a challenge. I think there are definitely also related concerns from folks as we are in another year of pandemic, though, I will say from all of the institutions we’ve spoken with, they are reporting really high vaccination rates among faculty, staff, and students. 

And for students it’s sometime after the start of the year, but I think that they have been weathering and adapting to our changing public health needs with as much flexibility and aplomb as we could ask them. They’re doing really, really amazing work being nimble in a tough time. But I do think we’re seeing increased economic pressure on communities that have higher college going rates in the first place. And that’s an area that we’re going to have to continue keeping an eye on and, and investing in adapting to how we need to support, you know, students in tough times. 


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