Demand for state financial aid outstrips supply

The Bellingham Business Journal

State financial aid programs, which help fill the gap between family income and college costs, were stretched to the maximum this year, and many students who qualified for aid did not receive it, according to preliminary data compiled by the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board.

It is estimated the number of Washingtonians who qualified for but did not receive a State Need Grant during the current academic year tripled from the previous year. In addition, the average State Need Grant award was lower for students at higher income levels. These challenges are likely to persist during the 2010-11 school year, as demand continues at an even greater rate.

The State Need Grant is the state’s largest financial aid program. About 74,000 students received one this year. The number of students who qualified for, but did not receive a State Need Grant is expected to exceed 15,000 students this year compared with 5,000 students last year.

At the same time, universities across the state are reporting a spike in the number of students completing the FAFSA this year. The FAFSA is the document used to determine financial eligibility for student financial aid programs, such as the State Need Grant and the federal Pell Grant.

Between June 2009 and May 2010, the number of FAFSA applications rose 22 percent over the previous year at all public and private institutions. The most significant increase was at the state’s community and technical colleges, where applications rose 41 percent, said Renae Watts, a research analyst for the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The legislature did provide increased support for the State Need Grant program in the current biennium in an effort to maintain its historic commitment to expanding aid to meet the increased cost of tuition and fees. But that support was not enough to cover the sharp increase in demand this year.

“The problem isn’t the state’s commitment to its largest financial aid programs ― it’s the burgeoning growth in the number of students who are qualified and ready to go to college but whose personal financial resources are inadequate to cover the cost,” said John Klacik, director of student financial assistance for the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

State Need Grants are awarded to financially eligible students on a first-come, first-served basis in quarterly allotments throughout the year. For the next academic year, the legislature has provided enough funding to maintain current eligibility thresholds for the grants at 70 percent of median family income. For example, a family of four sending one student to college would have to have an income less than $54,500 to qualify for at least a partial State Need Grant.

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