UW Impact

A Closer Look at the Workforce Education Investment Act

During the 2019 legislative session, the Washington State Legislature passed the most significant investment in higher education in a decade, called the Workforce Education Investment Act. On Jan. 10, UW Impact devoted their annual legislative-preview event, titled “College Access, Free Tuition and Financial Aid for the Middle Class,” to the legislation and what it means for higher education in the state of Washington.

UW President Ana Mari Cauce, Representative Drew Hansen (D-23), UW student regent Daniela Suarez and Irene Plenefisch, Government Affairs Director for Microsoft, made up the event’s panel, moderated by Merisa Heu-Weller, Chair of the Board of Trustees of Bellevue College.

The Workforce Education Investment Act creates the Washington College Grant, which provides a full-tuition scholarship to families making $55,000 or less and a partial scholarship to families making up to 100% of Median Family Income (about $88,000 for a family of four). It also invests in programs at the state’s community and technical colleges and expands high-demand degree programs across the state in fields such as nursing, engineering, and computer science. Overall, it makes college more accessible to more than 110,000 students a year.

Building Coalition

UW Impact advocates worked on behalf of the bill during the 2019 legislative session, sending thousands of advocacy messages to their lawmakers, testifying in person and in written testimony, and lobbying in Olympia on behalf of the bill. The legislation passed by one vote on April 28, 2019.

“There is no question that this is monumental … We’ve built the coalition … We will make sure that this continues. This is a good step forward, but we have a long way to go,” said Cauce to the crowd, which included former Rep. Frank Chopp, a powerful proponent of the bill during his tenure as House Speaker, a position he held for 21 years before retiring last year.

“The industry partnership made it clear it was about the real needs of the state … It’s good for our businesses to build talent here.” — UW President Ana Mari Cauce

Microsoft and Amazon were critical parts of the coalition that coalesced around the bill, which is funded through a business and occupation tax that will raise about $1 billion over four years. Their support was distinctive considering the fact that they look to be the only two companies in the highest tax bracket, according to a Seattle Times article.

Cauce described how the university’s support for the bill could be interpreted as self-interested, while the industry partnership “made it clear it was about the real needs of the state … It’s good for our businesses to build talent here.” Plenefisch described how Microsoft was one of the only companies advocating for the legislation. “It’s not easy for a company to say ‘Let’s tax business.’ We took a little heat for that,” she said.

Student Perspective

Suarez is a transfer student and senior at the UW who didn’t think she could afford college. With support from financial aid, “all these doors and opportunities opened up,” she said. “The Workforce Education Investment Act is inclusive legislation. The next step is to communicate the power of the legislation.”

The dominant message in the media is about the high cost of college and the amount of debt students are accumulating. Too many feel like college isn’t accessible to them, just as Suarez once feared. With the Workforce Education Investment Act and the Husky Promise, the UW program that guarantees access to higher education for qualified students, finances don’t have to be a barrier to higher education. Expanded financial aid also means that the UW’s fundraising efforts can go toward helping students offset the considerable cost of living in the region.

While the evening was largely devoted to examining the benefits to students from the Workforce Education Investment Act, the prevailing mood was that we have to keep fighting to protect this important legislation. Referencing the popular children’s game, Hansen described the “hungry hungry hippos” mentality in Olympia, with everybody fighting to fund their own priorities. UW Impact was instrumental in helping to pass the bill, and “we’re going to need that army again,” he said. He encouraged the crowd to sign up to advocate by becoming UW Impact advocates.