SEATTLE -- Despite signs that the state economy is improving, finding money to send children to college is still becoming more difficult.
More students received financial aid last year, but even more families aren't getting the help they need, according to a new report from the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board.
State officials and Washington families are expecting this year to be worse, because they see no relief from the steady rise in tuition.
Financial aid for in-state students has gone up 34 percent over the past three years, but the growth in applications for that money has gone up twice as fast, according to the report. The number of students qualified for the state's need-based grants but didn't get the money they needed for the 2010-11 school year was about 25,000, the report said.
The number of underserved students has grown by thousands each of the past few years. The higher education board has projected a similar increase for 2011-12.
The Legislature put an extra $107 million toward the State Need Grant for the 2011-13 biennium budget to help students keep up with tuition increases. But the Higher Education Coordinating Board expects thousands of students will not get the financial help they need, mostly because the Legislature also authorized Washington universities to continue a pattern of double-digit percent tuition hikes.
The student lobbyist for the University of Washington student government said financial aid will never be able to keep up with tuition increases, while middle-class students rarely qualify for that kind of aid.
"The best form of financial aid is lower tuition," said Andrew Lewis, director of the Associated Students of the University of Washington office of government relations.
Lewis said he hears from students who are struggling to find a way to pay their tuition and the other costs of attending college. Students tell him they have to skip a quarter every once in a while to work full-time.
The history and political science major lives at home to keep costs down and started his education at community college to save more dollars. Lewis expects to graduate this spring and head directly to graduate school at the London School of Economics next fall.
"A lot of them have to drop out of school and seek other opportunities," he said. "I think they're all going to go back to college and they're going to graduate. But it's going to take six years, rather than four."
The way financial aid and tuition is structured in this country, higher education is becoming the right of the rich and the privilege of the poor, Lewis said, adding that middle-class students are left out of the equation.
Lewis said his parents helped him pay for college by saving money in Washington state's prepaid tuition program, Guaranteed Education Tuition.
A Bellevue mother with three children in college said she feels bad for the students whose parents didn't or couldn't plan ahead to save for college. Connie Holton said she and her husband started saving for her triplets when they were 6 months old.
"It's amazing how many people don't save," Holton said. "Then it's sad. They can't afford it and their kids aren't going to places that they could have gone."
One of her children, a competitive swimmer, got financial help from a private university where she is a student athlete. The family also got some good advice early on, the most surprising of which was that going to school out-of-state may be a bargain.
Another college savings trick Holton learned on her own: If your children go to school far away, then you can take them off your car insurance. That's saving the family $2,000 a year for the triplets, money that now goes to buy plane tickets for the children to come home on vacations.
Holton had a different take on tuition costs than some. She doesn't want to see program and service cuts in higher education like the ones she saw in high school.
"When you visit colleges, you're just like, `Wow. It takes a lot to run a school,"' she said.