Higher education in Washington state isn't getting the respect it deserves nor the cash it needs from state lawmakers.
That's because higher education is one of the few areas of the state budget that isn't mandated or protected by the state constitution -- or political cover.
Lawmakers have been able to cut higher education without serious consequence by allowing the colleges and universities to raise tuition to make up much of the difference. Tuition has been boosted about 30 percent over the past two years and it's likely to keep going up at that rate -- or faster.
In addition, public colleges and universities are considering reducing the number of in-state students they will accept to make room for out-of-state students, who must pay a much higher tuition thereby plugging some of the funding hole.
This is the wrong approach and one that will cripple higher education by making it unaffordable to students from middle-class Washington families.
Sure, lawmakers talk about boosting the amount of financial aid available but that's not the answer. Middle-class and upper-middle-class families often don't qualify for much, if any, aid. The tables used to calculate who is and isn't eligible simply don't mesh with the real world.
Washington State University President Elson S. Floyd said it well in a recent column published in The Seattle Times.
"Stable funding and adequate financial aid are absolutely essential," Floyd wrote. "Without them, tuition flexibility becomes another route to the wrong destination -- ever-greater burdens on students and their parents."
He ended his column with this observation: "In 2000, annual tuition amounted to 7.8 percent of the state's median income. It has now doubled, to more than 15 percent. That is why tuition flexibility cannot be an end in itself. It must be one part of a policy that stops the tuition spiral for our students and reinstates access as a cornerstone of our state's higher-education strategy."
College and university officials can't be blamed for this mess. They have little choice but to raise tuition so enrollment won't have to be reduced and course offerings diminished. The taxpayers have clear expectations for these public colleges and universities.
These are public -- state-owned -- schools established so all citizens, not just the wealthy, would have an opportunity to obtain a college education. If tuition is allowed to rise 14 to 30 percent a year, the goal of a public education will be lost.
Lawmakers need to accept their responsibility as stewards of state-owned schools and make sure they are adequately funded and remain affordable.
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