Slashing financial aid imperils higher education and economic growth

The Olympian, published February 07, 2010 By Roy F. Heynderickx

A couple of weeks ago, I walked at the state Capitol with two Saint Martin’s University students to meet with state legislators to talk about state student aid, in particular the Washington state need grant program. The purpose of our walking the hallways that day was to put a face on the spreadsheet figures that our legislators will consider in the next few weeks.

As you may recall, our governor’s December budget proposed reducing the state need grant program drastically, which would cause more than 15,000 students to lose eligibility and the remaining 57,000 students to receive sharply lower amounts in aid.

Such cuts jeopardize students’ ability to continue to pay for their education. The governor’s January budget seeks to restore those grants with new revenue yet to be identified, while other smaller state student support programs would not be restored or are being suspended.

Both students who accompanied me are full-time students at Saint Martin’s. And while they both have taken on jobs in addition to their full course load, they are still dependent on the state need grant to help pay for school. These two are more than just students in need; they represent the future. Both excel in their studies and are involved in student government. They walked with me out of concern for their fellow students, but hopeful that these grants will stay funded.

You will find students like these two – engaged in their education and embodying great promise, yet dependent upon the state need grant – at public and private colleges and universities across our great state.

As we toured the Capitol, I thought of how my generation benefited from the scholarship and education programs implemented in the 1960s. Those programs provided grants and loans that covered a large portion of the cost of education. The programs enabled many of us to pursue degrees that led to careers, employment growth, and community involvement. Those programs have not kept up with the growing cost of education. It would be a shame if a program such as the state need grant was cut or eliminated at a time when access to higher education is needed most.

No matter which party you support, President Obama’s mandate to “have the highest proportion of students graduating from college in the world by 2020” so as to “better prepare our workforce for a 21st-century economy” is the best prescription for our economic woes.

In Washington state, higher education has been a key economic driver. Our economy has already seen changes in the last few decades. Skilled employment from certain trades, in particular construction, has given way to jobs in technology, health care, business, etc.

These sectors have attracted a more educated workforce, which has brought new businesses to our region and helped it thrive. Our future workforce will continue to require advanced education to open doors to professional and personal lifestyles previous generations have enjoyed.

Access to higher education, unfortunately, is still defined by affordability. Those who can afford it will seek it. But for those who cannot, the door might be closed forever. We must do our part to make sure that access – especially through grants – is available to those that need them most. We have an obligation to the current generation to help provide access to higher education. To ignore this generation will play out in many unhealthy ways for society.

So, where do we come up with new revenue to help maintain these programs?

I would ask our legislators to think hard about this and consider new sources. Every source must be weighed against our responsibility to the next generation, as we most certainly will be dependent upon this generation for our own well-being and security. As Lee Iacocca once said, “passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor and the highest responsibility anyone could have.”

Roy F. Heynderickx is president of Saint Martin’s University in Lacey.