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Legislature takes action on a slew of higher education policies

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Now in the second half of the legislative session, the Washington state House and Senate have moved to nearly round-the-clock debating, caucusing, and voting on legislation from the chamber floors. The chambers vote on a slate of bills each day and have approved a handful of higher education bills in the last week across a variety of issue areas.

The Senate debated and approved two major proposals to aid with the costs of higher education and many others aimed at providing additional support to various groups, such as student parents and veterans.

The state is teed up to meet its financial aid obligation to low-income students for the first time in more than a decade. On March 9, the Senate voted on a party-line vote to pass SB 5393, establishing the Washington College Promise in place of the State Need Grant. The legislation, drafted at the request of the governor’s office, was sent to the House as its final hurdle, where Democrats hold a similar majority to the Senate.

During debate, the Senate considered but rejected several amendments by Republicans, including one that would raise the minimum GPA for aid eligibility from 2.0 to 2.5.

One of the most contentious pieces of the bill would change the structure of higher education financial aid to an entitlement, making it more difficult to underfund in the future, as is the case with basic education (K-12) in the state.

“Every time we create an entitlement in the Legislature here, we remove the ability to have discretionary funding and have control over the future budgets in front of us,” Sen. Jeff Holy (R-Cheney) said.

Sen. David Frockt (D-Seattle) spoke in support of the bill and argued for the need to make financial aid an entitlement in order to maintain support for students from low-income backgrounds in future budgets. During debate on the bill, Frockt shared a remark that he heard that he said stuck with him, illustrating how crucial the bill is.

“If you want to move the needle on intergenerational poverty, education and providing access to education is the way forward,” he quoted.

The other major college affordability proposal recently passed by the Senate would create a state loan refinancing program. The bill, SB 5774, would also create a pilot program for Income Share Agreements (ISAs), contracts in which a student receives education funding in exchange for a percentage of income for a set period post-graduation.

Sen. Marko Liias (D-Lynnwood) introduced the legislation after the state Institute of Public Policy found the two methods may be effective approaches for alleviating the 800,000 Washingtonians holding $24 billion in student loan debt, according to a report by the attorney general’s office.

Sen. Holy, who was opposed to a previous version of the bill in committee, spoke in support of the legislation, which went on to pass by a vote of 40 to 8. The loan refinancing was a legislative priority of the UW’s Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS).

The mental health of student veterans is another priority of both the GPSS and the ASUW. On March 7, the Senate approved legislation unanimously that would require all public baccalaureate institutions to employ a full-time mental health counselor with experience and training related to working with active members of the military or veterans. The ASUW agenda claims this position is currently underfunded at the UW.

Two other agenda items of the ASUW have been considered, though perhaps not fully addressed, by bills approved out of the House and Senate.

The House passed HB 1998 unanimously March 5. This bill would create a legislative task force on Title IX and sexual violence at institutions of higher education that would develop model procedures and guidance for these institutions by the end of this year. Improving access to care, reporting, and prevention of sexual assault and harassment is a priority of both undergraduate and graduate students at the UW.

The ASUW legislative agenda says they support policies which provide services to students experiencing homelessness. The Senate has approved two measures that would expand resources available to homeless students.

The first of these proposals, SB 5324, improves grants and resources in the state that aim to identify students vulnerable to homelessness before they reach higher education and connect them with state support systems.

The other bill, SB 5800, would create pilot programs at community and technical colleges and four-year universities to provide increased assistance to students experiencing homelessness and students who were in foster care prior to their enrollment.

On Tuesday, March 12 the House passed HB 1079, which would add a seat on the UW and WSU boards of regents for a member of faculty, much like the student regent. This has been a goal of the faculty senate for several years.

Reach legislative reporter Devon McBride at Twitter: @DevonM98

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