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Natalie Stricker

Lower Columbia College student Natalie Stricker looks toward the second floor of the Health and Science building, or as she calls it, the "nursing floor" where she hopes to finish her schooling. Stricker is one of many in Cowlitz County who will benefit from a state bill which helps low-income families pay for postsecondary education.

After a 20-year break from school, Natalie Stricker wasn’t sure she could afford classes at Lower Columbia College when she enrolled in the pre-nursing program in April last year. But this mother of five was determined to build a better life for her and her children.

“We are at poverty level. … Socioeconomics play a huge role in education, so I need to raise my children out of the hole they are in, so that they have a better opportunity,” says Stricker, 39, of Longview.

Stricker said she planned to rely on a Washington State Need Grant to cover her tuition, fees and school supplies. But before her first quarter started, she learned she was one of 320 LCC students who were “waitlisted” because the state ran out of grant money. Stricker was forced to sell her family’s car to pay for her classes, laptop and textbooks, she said.

“It’s kind of disappointing when they say, ‘Well you can have it, but not right now. Later, maybe,’ ” Stricker said. “The uncertainty was off-putting. Don’t tease me with it.”

But in good news for Stricker and potentially thousands of other Cowlitz County students, a bill the Legislature just passed will remove the uncertainty from the State Need Grant, starting in the 2020-21 school year. In effect, the bill is a promise that the state will help pay for college or postsecondary training for all low- and middle-income students, in some cases as much as the full cost of tuition.

That bill, which Gov. Jay Inslee is expected to sign Tuesday, guarantees these grants for any member of a family of four that makes about $92,000 a year or less — the state’s median family income.

The bill also expands the number of eligible students by increasing the income cutoff, which has been $65,000.

For rural areas like Cowlitz County, with above average poverty and lower rates of educational achievement, the legislation will make higher education more attainable, said Mike Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, which oversees the grant.

“The idea of increasing the income limits was meant to be a recognition that college affordability is a broad problem in our communities,” Meotti said. “While it’s felt the most by low-income families, (college) affordability is a challenge even in middle-income families.”

The grants apply to two- and four-year college programs, as well as state-certified apprenticeships.

Ted Sprague, president of the Cowlitz Economic Development Council, said he “appreciates that (the grant) is not just for four-year universities. I think they tried to go as far and wide as they could to include all types of education, not just four-year.”

A “maximum grant” — which goes to students whose families make up to 55 percent of the median family income, or $46,000 for a family of four — covers all tuition, building fees and service and activity fees at in-state eligible institutions.

The amount of the grants will be prorated based on a family’s income and will range from 10 percent to 100 percent of total tuition and fees.

About 70,000 students received a State Need Grant in 2017-18, but another 22,000 were waitlisted. Under the new rules, 110,000 students can count on the state financial aid program. According to a Seattle Times report, many of those students can expect to attend college for free.

“It’s amazing,” Stricker said of the proposed changes. “That whole first quarter would have looked entirely different for me.”

Kelso Superintendent Mary Beth Tack said the changes to the grant is “an incredible support for, and commitment to, the students of Washington, and especially Kelso kids.”

“For our students pursuing college, the trades and apprenticeship programs, this is a big win and opens post-secondary paths for many of our families,” Tack said.

An estimate of how many Cowlitz County students the legislation would benefit was not immediately available last week, but Meotti said it will have a “broader reach” in Cowlitz County, where the average family income is less than the statewide average.

Half of Cowlitz County households make less than $46,000 each year, while half of all Washington households make at least $73,000, according to the state Office of Financial Management.

“There is a huge variation between household income in Cowlitz and the statewide number,” Meotti said.

The poverty rate is also higher in Cowlitz County than it is statewide. More than 16 percent of residents in the county live in poverty, as compared to just 11 percent statewide.

“What this will likely do is make programs there (at LCC) more affordable to a wider range of students and families in the area,” Meotti said.

As it stands under the current rules, more than 1,600 LCC students are eligible for the State College Grant. With the expansion, that number will grow.

The proposed guarantee and expansions to the grant, which are estimated to cost about $373.8 million in the next two years, will be covered by increasing Business-and-Occupation taxes for service-providing enterprises. That includes architecture and engineering services, legal services, insurance carriers, medical services, software publishing and telecommunications services, among other businesses. According to the Seattle Times, the grant bill calls for increased tax rates on about one-fifth all of Washington businesses.

The B&O tax is already widely unpopular with Washington businesses because it is a gross receipts tax, and it must be paid even if a businesses doesn’t make a profit. Additionally, the state doesn’t offer deductions from the B&O tax for labor, materials, taxes or other costs of doing business, according to the state Department of Revenue.

Increasing the B&O tax was highly opposed by state organizations that represent businesses, including the Independent Business Association, the Washington State Medical Association, the MultiCare Health System, the Associated General Contractors and the Association of Washington Business.

“Small businesses have to contract for services like accounting and payroll, and this will have a pyramiding effect on these businesses. Higher education is very important, but funding it this way is wrong,” said Jeff Gombosky, MultiCare Health System lobbyist, at a public legislative hearing for the bill.

Representatives of the Kelso-Longview Chamber of Commerce could not to be reached for comment last week. But Sprague, the Cowlitz Economic Development Council president, said the increased taxes may not hit Cowlitz County businesses as hard as other areas because local industry is manufacturing-based, not service-based. He said, for example, that Amazon and Microsoft will pay almost 5 percent of the total tax.

“I think for our small area, it could be a net positive going into the future ... because the grants are based on income, and our median income is lower than the state average, so we will have more families and people eligible than in, say, King County,” Sprague said. “And then the tax burden will be less because we have less of those big service industries.”

However, Sprague said the new taxes will still “raise the bottom line” for some local businesses, and his organization is “always wary of when new taxes are imposed on businesses.”

And there’s the concern that the initial tax hike might not be enough to meet the new guarantee that all eligible families get the grant, Sprague added.

“What happens in five years if (legislators) feel like they didn’t increase taxes enough? Will they increase them again?” Sprague said. “We don’t know how many people will take advantage of this grant, and it could overwhelm the program. That inevitably leads to cutting the program or raising taxes.”

Stricker, the LCC student, said she thinks the grant will ultimately benefit businesses because it will help more residents earn college degrees. Cowlitz County’s degree attainment rate has historically trailed the state, and just about 26 percent of county residents age 25 or older had a college degree in 2016. Statewide, that number was about 43 percent.

“For our community, it means higher enrollment and more people who can look at college as a tool they can use,” Stricker said. She added that “any investment in education benefits the whole community” because LCC grads are more likely to stay and work locally — and spend their paychecks at local businesses.

The Washington Student Association Council, Meotti’s organization, said the grant will also help train the state’s workforce. Currently, only 56 percent of adults age 25-44 have a postsecondary credential, which includes a college degree or trades certification. But the Washington Roundtable estimates that 70 percent of Washington jobs will require such training in less than five years.

“Washington has invested in a program with proven success in increasing educational attainment. Research shows that students who receive State Need Grant are more likely to finish their degree and have less debt when they graduate,” says a WSAC news release. “That degree positions graduates for a lifetime of increased earnings compared to adults with only a high school diploma. People with an associate or bachelor’s degree can expect lifetime earnings of $1.7 to $2.3 million compared to only $1.3 million for people with only a high school diploma.”

Stricker said the promise of a better income for her family is what inspired her to enroll at LCC about a year ago.

“We are in a position where we can’t afford for me not to go to school,” Stricker said. “By the time I graduate and enter the workforce my son will be 16, and right now I can’t afford ... any of the things a normal teenager needs to be a safe, responsible human being.”

Once she has her degree, though, Stricker said she’ll be able to give her children “a leg up.” She’ll be able to “finally say ‘yes’ “ if they ask for a new cellphone or money for gas.

Stricker added that she anticipates that earning her degree will help her get a high-paying job, which will in turn get her family off of several federal assistance programs.

“This grant, in essence, is helping get me off of the federal disabilities program. It is getting my children off of state Medicaid and the school lunch program,” Stricker said. “For three years worth of investment by the state, they are getting a lifetime of me not being on welfare anymore. ... It becomes a really positive cycle.”

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