The cost of a college education continues to be a concern for Washington students and families, and making college “free” has become a popular notion in recent years. 

In an effort to make higher education more affordable, the Washington State Legislature passed the Workforce Education Investment Act during the 2019 legislative session. Though appearing to be a great idea on the surface, the policy raises questions as to what “free college” really means.  

The intent of the legislation, House Bill 2158, was to address our state’s need for more STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees. It replaces the State Need Grant with the Washington College Grant providing more expansive eligibility requirements.

However, the legislation lacks a number of sideboards. It does not require tuition funding be provided to students in STEM fields and, in most cases, students who have lived in the state for at least a year would qualify, as long as the purpose of relocating was not to attend college. There is also nothing in the legislation that requires applicants to reside in the state after graduation.

Students from families earning up to 55 percent of the state’s median family income (about $50,000 a year or less for a family of four) will now be entitled to a grant that amounts to the full cost of tuition and fees. Students from households making up to the state’s median income (about $90,000 a year for a family of four) will also be entitled to a partial grant. 

Proposals for common-sense reform to the bill were rejected. Republicans offered several amendments such as requiring a 2.5 GPA (currently 2.0) and asking students to complete eight hours of community service each academic year, as well as increased transparency and accountability on how institutions spend taxpayer dollars.  

The bottom line is the “free college” scheme is not free. It will cost Washington taxpayers $1 billion, with business & occupation (B&O) tax rate increases upon many service businesses. It is expected that more than 80,000 businesses are facing an additional surcharge on their B&O tax. While Microsoft and Amazon were supportive of the bill, most small businesses were not. This will be challenging for many employers in our state, and they will have no choice but to pass the new costs along to you, the consumer.

This policy will hit the middle class hardest, to the point they may not be able to afford to send their own children to college. Under this bill, most middle-class families will not qualify for state financial aid. Those fortunate enough will only receive a small award, which means they’ll take out more loans to cover the cost. 

Washington is already the second-best state in the country for providing need-based grant aid to students. That means the state does not expect anything in return in order for students to receive these grants. With the passage of this new proposal, we are guaranteed to be number one. 

Financial aid should be available for those who are committed to degree completion — which, studies show, does lead to future successful careers. Our state does a grave disservice when low-income students do not graduate or graduate with degrees bringing low employment prospects. 

A college education is more valued when you “have skin in the game” — a personal interest in your future success. Without the financial and personal drive, some students may show lackadaisical behavior toward the timely completion of their education. 

We can all agree higher education should be more accessible and affordable. The Workforce Education Investment Act will not work toward that goal because there is no incentive for higher education institutions to reduce costs with a “free college” plan in place. Universities continue to increase their expenditures without much transparency or accountability to the Legislature or the taxpayers. Without that accountability, the costs to attend college continue to rise.

The best plan is to reduce costs for all students. The greatest barriers to attaining higher education are the costs of college as a whole, including textbooks, class fees and the cost of living. Let us find a way to reduce those costs instead of growing government spending with another entitlement program. We cannot subsidize our way to college affordability.

  State Rep. Luanne Van Werven represents the 42nd Legislative District of Whatcom County.