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Verifying WA Grant eligibility via food benefits

Washington state considers innovative approach: allowing food benefits eligibility as proxy for free college tuition

January 16, 2024

Olympia—Policymakers in Washington state are considering a groundbreaking approach to college financial aid: skip the complicated application, and instead verify eligibility via enrollment in public benefits programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—known in Washington as Basic Food.

The complex financial aid application process has long been known to be a barrier to accessing aid and enrolling in college or training. People from low-income families often qualify for multiple public benefits programs, including financial aid for education, but eligible people must separately seek out and apply for these various forms of support.

To eliminate this burden, the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC) proposed that the state guarantee financial aid to anyone who qualifies for Basic Food—without requiring a financial aid application. Other people would still need to apply using FAFSA or WASFA, and food benefits recipients could still apply later to maximize their aid. Washington Governor Jay Inslee is supporting the idea by including relevant funding in his 2024 supplemental budget proposal. State Reps. Vandana Slatter, chair of the Postsecondary Education and Workforce committee, and Steve Bergquist, vice chair of House Appropriations, have introduced House Bill 2214, which would make the proposal law.

The approach could be particularly effective in Washington, where need-based financial aid is especially robust. The state-funded Washington College Grant (WA Grant) is one of the most equitable, generous and flexible programs in the country.

WA Grant funds can be used for approved apprenticeships, certificate programs and job training, as well as degree programs at two-year and four-year public and private colleges. Funding is guaranteed to eligible Washingtonians of all ages, not just recent high school graduates. Individuals and families making up to 65 percent of the state’s median family income (MFI)—as much as $78,500 for a family of four in 2024-25—can receive the equivalent of free public college tuition. 

That $78,500 is well above the threshold for a family to receive benefits via Basic Food. Basic Food clients are among the lowest-income residents of the state, and more than 70 percent of the roughly 600,000 Washington adults receiving food benefits do not have any college experience or degree. 

WSAC’s research demonstrates the potentially life-changing impact of financial aid on this population. Key findings of its 2022 report Intergenerational Economic Mobility of Need-Based Financial Aid Recipients in Washington included evidence that many of the most economically disadvantaged recipients of need-based financial aid surpass their parents financially within three years of college graduation. 

Furthermore, there is evidence that Washington’s generous approach to need-based financial aid may be encouraging more low-income students to apply for financial aid and enroll in college. Since WA Grant became an entitlement, FAFSA completion rates have increased more among high school seniors who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL) (6 percent) than those who are not FRPL eligible (2 percent). Similarly, while college enrollment continues to decline, that decline was mitigated in recent years for students who received need-based financial aid. WSAC’s 2023 report on enrollment trends during the pandemic found that, from fall of 2019 to fall of 2021, enrollment at four-year public colleges actually increased 10 percent for recipients of need-based aid while declining 15 percent among those who did not receive aid.

“Our research shows that financial aid pays off for Washingtonians, both as individual recipients and also as a societal investment,” says Michael P. Meotti, executive director of WSAC. “We can make our system more equitable by offering financial aid to those who have already demonstrated income eligibility as SNAP participants. This is an opportunity to put people on education or training pathways that lead to good-paying jobs, and potentially reduce their reliance on public benefits in the future.”