Guest editorial: Students play big role in higher ed policy

In 2015, thanks to effective advocacy by students across Washington, the Legislature acted to reduce college tuition at our state colleges and universities. Last session was truly historic, but there’s a lot of work to be done to make college affordable and to improve higher education attainment.

There is no issue more bipartisan in the Legislature than higher education. Lawmakers want to do what’s best for college students, and we want input from students as we make policy decisions.

As the ranking Republican on the House Higher Education Committee, I have laid out seven priorities for higher education this legislative session. I would love to get student feedback on these priorities.

First, the Legislature needs to follow through on the 2015 tuition reductions and prevent future increases. In future budgets, we need to maintain the tuition reduction policy we passed, but also replace dollars to our institutions that would have come from tuition payments.

Second, we should maximize financial aid payments through the state Need Grant. Currently, 29,000 eligible students aren’t receiving Need Grant payments. Need Grant funding should cover more students and be prioritized for low income as well as students in their first two years of higher education. Freshman-to-sophomore retention is a key determinant of graduation.

Third, we should control costs. One obvious cost – more than $800 per student this year – is that of textbooks and course materials. House Republicans are working to drive down textbook costs through expanded use of open course materials.

Fourth, promote innovation by adopting recommendations from higher education stakeholders with a performance funding system to incentivize increased high-demand degree completion. My bill to do this is House Bill 2692. I have another bill that would allow “income share agreements” to engage the private sector in increasing high-demand degree completion.

We also need to modernize student support and advising services. Our community colleges are making strides in this area, and Central Washington University is asking the Legislature for help to launch a “Fifth Year Promise” program that would allow a student to complete a degree in four years and would cover the costs if the student had to go beyond four years for no fault of their own.

Fifth, we should support policies that afford Washingtonians a wide range of higher education choices. As students launch their careers, we should ensure Need Grant funding remains available across the range of all higher education choices.

Sixth, we should protect student and faculty academic freedom and promote diversity. This means ensuring a free exchange of ideas among students and faculty. Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, has introduced House Bill 2488 to enshrine campus free speech in state law. It would eliminate so-called “free speech zones” that limit speech on campus.

Finally, we should promote opportunities for underrepresented student populations and make Washington the most veteran-friendly state for higher education in the country. We need to continue our investment in the Opportunity Scholarship and fund the goals of first-generation students heading into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. We must continue work to improve credit for prior learning for veterans, invest in veteran centers on campuses, and expand online and classroom learning opportunities for current service members.

Want to make a difference in discussions of issues like these and others? Consider coming to Olympia this session, contacting legislators in your home district, and collaborating with your school’s student legislative liaison. Following last year’s historic tuition reduction, we can’t rest on our laurels. The work has just begun.