WA should pass bill making state community colleges free

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Bernal Baca is the Executive Director of Mi Centro in Tacoma, a non-profit organization providing social, cultural, and educational services to Pierce County’s large Latino community.

I have worked in the community college system for over 35 years and have seen firsthand the life-changing effects that attending our state’s colleges has had on so many in our community. It is a vital step in advancing their careers, gaining financial stability and has created a gateway to endless opportunities. However, the ever-increasing cost of tuition fees creates too high a barrier to entry.

This is especially true for the Latino community. Research done last year by the Washington Post found an alarming drop in the rate of Latinos being able to attend college. This situation has only worsened with continued increases in the cost of housing and food.

These trail costs explain why the Biden administration’s recent executive action to forgive between $10,000 and $20,000 in student debt for the most needy is a step in the right direction. It will help millions of students who have graduated, but it won’t solve the larger problem – the rising cost of tuition.

Here’s the truth for our communities, even after President Biden’s student debt relief and payments pause: Achieving higher education is barely within reach to begin with. And with costs rising every year, more and more people, especially in the Latino community, simply won’t be able to afford to go to college.

Even though Congress also passed (and the President signed) the Cut Inflation Act this summer, which contains many good things – from prescription drug reform to the biggest investment ever in the fight against climate change – one proposal that was ultimately not included was the Democrats’ plan for a tuition-free community college.

With federal action now stalled on the issue, it is critical that our leaders here at the state level step up and deliver solutions to the skyrocketing cost of a college education.

Many states across the country currently offer free community college. It’s a proven policy with proven results. A free community college will not only allow more students across the state to access higher education, but will also help the state economically. It’s a win-win. Governor Inslee and lawmakers in Olympia are expected to advance legislation in the next legislative session to achieve this.

In states that already have free tuition, the programs have proven effective in helping to alleviate current inequalities in higher education – and society – by increasing college enrollment, reducing reliance on student debt and improving college completion rates, especially among students of color and low-income students who are often the first in their families to attend college.

And let’s be clear: free community college isn’t just good for students; it’s also good for our economy. If students are able to graduate from college without mountains of debt, they will have more money to put back into our state’s economy. Also, students who can get a college degree often earn more than those who can’t attend college. Thus, more university graduates will mean a larger tax base.

The facts are clear: A free community college is a win for students and a win for our state. At this time of great economic uncertainty, and with the price of education rising every year, students – and our state’s economy – cannot afford another year of inaction.

It’s time for Olympia to finally act on this win-win for our state.

Bernal Baca is the Executive Director of Mi Centro in Tacoma, a non-profit organization providing social, cultural, and educational services to Pierce County’s large Latino community.

Christy J. Olson