State bill would help high school students pay for college courses

A new bill introduced in the Washington state Legislature is looking to eliminate course fees for high school students enrolled in the state’s College in the High School (CHS) and Running Start Programs.

Senate Bill 5719 was introduced by Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah. If passed, it would reduce financial barriers to students enrolled in both dual-credit programs by having the state fund at least a portion of costs that had previously been paid by students.

Mullet said that impact in financial savings is likely to be felt in the 5th Legislative District, as students in the Snoqualmie, Riverview, Issaquah and Tahoma school districts use these programs at some of the highest rates in the state.

“The idea is if you’re a high school student in the state of Washington, you shouldn’t have to pay to be in school,” Mullet said at a K-12 Education committee meeting. “That’s the principle we’re trying to follow here.”

SB 5719 would change who pays tuition costs associated with the state’s CHS program, which provides college level courses and dual-credit opportunities taught by high school teachers at state high schools.

Currently students enrolled in these courses are on the hook for all associated costs, which means paying up to $65 per credit. Under the new bill, the state would pay up to $35 per credit of that cost. That could reduce the cost of five credit courses for students from from $325 to $175.

SB 5719 also has the state pay mandatory tuition and course fees for students in the state’s Running Start program, which allows 11th- and 12th-graders to take courses at local community colleges while still in high school.

The reduction of these prohibitive costs could also go a long way in addressing the state’s goal of getting 70% of state high school graduates to have a postsecondary education at a college or trade-school, which will be needed for the majority of the state’s jobs in the next five years, according to the Governor’s office.

Since 1994, Washington has been below the national average of high school students enrolling immediately in postsecondary education after graduation. In 2018, only 53% of students did so, the fifth worst in the nation, with rates that were even lower for students of color. In the fall of 2020, postsecondary enrollment dropped by 13%, nearly twice the national average.

According to the Washington Office of the Superintendent for Public Instruction, enrollment in these dual credit courses is connected to higher high school graduation rates, college enrollment and degree completion.

Speaking at a committee meeting, Mullet said he had made an attempt to pass a similar bill in 2020, but ran into financial challenges that could have jeopardized the Washington College Promise program, which in 2021 provided free, or close to free, college for nearly 90,000 low-income students.

Cost is one of the reasons the new bill doesn’t cover the entire $65 tuition fee for the CHS course. Mullet said they found many districts had negotiated costs for CHS courses to be as low as $35 per credit. The total cost is also one of the reasons the new bill doesn’t cover textbook costs for running start students.

Despite these cuts, the bill remains expensive, Mullet said. He said it would have to be a priority for the ways and means committee if it was something the legislature wanted to fund this session.

A financial analysis on the bill has not been performed yet, but Mullet said they are hopeful it could save the state money, by having more students complete college credit while in high school, a lower cost compared to the students using the Washington College Promise program.

Those who spoke at the bill’s testimony were generally supportive but had some initial anxiety about how this could impact funding community colleges receive.

“The intention of this bill is that the fees community colleges receive from students in their running start programs would now be paid by the state,” Mullet said. “I think this would make a meaningful impact for families.”

Juliet Schindler, the director of government relations and advocacy at the college success foundation based in Issaquah, said that although she supports the bill’s efforts, and believes it’s a step in the right direction, it doesn’t go far enough.

“This doesn’t in reality help our lowest income students access college in the high school,” she said. “It is still a prohibitive cost in some cases,”

SB 5719 is likely to undergo some changes before potential passage. The bill currently sits with the Senate Ways and Means Committee.