Washington is offering more college aid than ever, plus new admission guarantees. Will students buy in?

At one point, it seemed iffy that Riko Niyomwungere would graduate from high school, never mind go to college. “I’d come to school not for the purpose of going to class but for, like, either hitting the gym, playing football or wrestling,” said the now 20-year-old.

A counselor at Seattle’s Ingraham High School kept telling him he had to go to class to graduate.

An English teacher helped set his sights higher. To get a good grade in his class, Niyomwungere recalled, students had to fill out an application for Seattle Promise, the program offering two years of free community college tuition to all of the high school seniors graduating from the city’s public schools. Onsite at Ingraham was a Seattle Promise outreach staffer to walk students through the process.

The thought of paying money for college was, to Niyomwungere, “ludicrous.” He said he loved learning but didn’t enjoy school, except perhaps for a senior year class that hooked him on computer science. But since the Seattle Promise would pay for college, and provide counselors to guide him through the experience, he concluded there was no downside.

“This is the most concrete plan I currently have,” he says he thought to himself.

Niyomwungere is now studying computer science at North Seattle College and hopes to enroll in a bachelor’s program in the field the college is launching this fall.

It’s the kind of success story Washington’s colleges, higher education advocates and lawmakers hope to emulate. They’re striving to get more students to college in the face of steep enrollment losses during the pandemic and a weak college culture to begin with — especially among men.

The college boosters are trying new things, from marketing campaigns to embedding more college outreach workers in high schools to providing admission and financial aid guarantees.

Last month, the Legislature passed a bill that took lessons from Seattle Promise. That program, which sent 1,100 young people to college last fall, has staffers embedded in high schools, “and their only job is to get people to sign up noted,” state Rep. Drew Hansen, a Democrat from Bainbridge Island.

House Bill 1835, which Hansen sponsored, instructs the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges to put outreach workers in high schools located in parts of the state with the lowest rates of tuition the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA. These outreach workers will more students to fill out this application, and also the state version for students who can’t fill out the FAFSA due to their immigration status.

Many students can’t attend college if they don’t get financial aid. Yet, Washington ranked 48th among states nationwide in the share of high school seniors who completed the FAFSA as of July last year, with 46% having done so. Even fewer students are on track to complete the application this year.

“What keeps me up at night is the declines in the number of students who are the FAFSA,” said Paul Francis, executive director of the Council of Presidents, representing the state’s six four-year institutions.

The potential benefits have never been better. Legislators this year made the state’s already generous financial aid program, the Washington College Grant, even more so.

They raised the income threshold to qualify for free tuition from 55% to 60% of the median for families (meaning a student in a family of four earning $64,500 a year wouldn’t have to pay for college), and also stipulated that qualifying students would get $500 a year for books and supplies. Partial tuition scholarships are available to students whose families earn up to the median income, or $107,000 for a family of four.

Filling out the forms, though, can be confusing and cumbersome — so the Legislature is enabling students to get financial aid more easily. If their families receive certain government benefits, like food stamps or welfare, they’ve already proven they have a low income. Under the new law, they now will be automatically issued a certificate, as early as 10th grade, entitling them to the Washington College Grant.

“What we’re saying is not just, oh wow, you might be eligible for this,” said Michael Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, a state agency that advocates for higher education and will issue the certificates. “We’re saying, no, you are in fact guaranteed this.”

It’s a concept similar to Seattle’s “promise” of free tuition, Meotti said, except it is limited by income.

The state’s public four-year institutions are also experimenting with the notion of guaranteed college admission. A new program will soon begin notifying high school seniors in dozens of cooperating districts that they can attend their choice of participating institutions if the students have taken required courses and have a certain grade-point average — 3.0 for Washington State, Western Washington, Central Washington and Eastern Washington universities; 2.5 for Evergreen State College. (Highly competitive University of Washington is not participating.)

Cooperating districts include Highline and Tacoma Public Schools and the Lake Washington School District.

“Our attempt here is to help students understand: there’s a place for you,” said Francis of Council of Presidents.

The state’s community and technical colleges, which have taken the biggest enrollment hit during the pandemic — down 24% from two years ago — meanwhile have launched their first unified marketing campaign. Jan Yoshiwara, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, said the campaign is aimed at part at men, who make up only 42% of students in the system.

So men feature prominently in the advertising, which also stresses the comparatively inexpensive cost of community colleges and the job after graduating. These are huge issues for today’s students, Yoshiwara said. The ad campaign’s motto: “Big future. Small price tag.”

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