As Washington continues its climb out from the depths of the Great Recession, we must evaluate what has and has not been working for our state. One program that I believe has been invaluable in helping to create the stable and talent rich workforce that we rely on more than ever is the State Work-Study (SWS) program. Created in 1974, SWS provides on-the-job training for needy students, often in fields in which they are pursuing college degrees.
With the rising cost of education, the number of students who rely on work-study to earn money and gain experience has increased considerably, leaving the state looking for ways to handle that increased load. At the same time, the governor’s proposed budget eliminates the program, jeopardizing a valuable mechanism that helps our students and our workforce.
This year, I have proposed a bill designed to increase the amount of available money to SWS. Senate Bill 6447 would create a surcharge of $10 to be added to licensing fees for limited liability companies, profit corporations, non-profit corporations, limited partnerships and limited-liability partnerships. The funds would be deposited in the Education Legacy Trust Account and used solely to fund SWS. It doesn’t cover the program’s entire cost, but it’s a start.
On Tuesday, I and the other members of the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee heard firsthand how the work-study program has bettered the lives of men and women in Washington.
Without SWS, a life described as “neither normal nor pleasant” might still be the case for Fleetwood Wilson of North Seattle Community College. Fleetwood’s basic education ended at sixth grade and he became involved in drugs, gangs and crime. But thanks to a strong drive and SWS, Fleetwood went back to school. He earned a BA in 2005 with a 3.74 GPA and is now the Admissions Coordinator for his alma mater. He credits SWS for that, saying “it opens doors that no one else can.”
Renne Ghan with the United Way of Pierce County described the program as “near and dear to the hearts” of United Way and other service organizations. Ghan says hard working work-study students, passionate about helping out, aid more than 60,000 people by manning call centers for South Sound 211 and dispensing referral services information to Pierce County residents. Without SWS, those students would not be able to gain the valuable experience in a community aid organization and the 211 organization would lose a motivated workforce. Ghan says she well knows the value of SWS because she was once a participant.
So was Bethany Opstedal, who started working for United Way while she was a student. Without SWS, she says there was no way she would have been able to afford her education at the University of Puget Sound and may never have discovered a passion for the work that has become her career. That career has spanned 10 years, an invaluable amount of time dedicated to community service.
Charles Plummer of the Graduate and Professional Students Senate at the University of Washington also spoke in favor of SB 6447, calling it a bedrock component in financial aid. In the past two years however, he says funding levels have dropped, threatening to destroy this valuable resource. Without SWS, he says, support will all but disappear for graduate students. “It that what we want,” he asks? Companies like Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft require advanced degrees for many positions. Isn’t it better to produce those degrees here in Washington than to import them from out of state or overseas?
Because the state has shifted its obligation for public higher education onto students and families, undergraduate student loan debt in this state and nationally is increasing dramatically. That amount increases even further when they pursue a graduate degree. Failure to fund SWS and its graduate student assistance programs means we will be sending grad students out into the world with more burdensome debt load than they otherwise would have had. This is not good public policy. We can’t cut state support, allow for increased tuition and then cut the financial aid available. Yet that is exactly what will happen if we eliminate investments like this.
Plummer described the students of SWS as “filled with drive, passion and a strong work ethic” – just the students we need to sustain our economy and to build the businesses of tomorrow.