Long-term plan to fund higher education must be priority

The gap between financial aid and tuition is increasing rapidly in Washington and across the nation. It can't be allowed to continue.

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Tuition for Washington state-owned universities and colleges has gone up about 30 percent the past two years and it's likely going to continue to increase substantially annually.

Yet, state lawmakers (who gave permission to raise tuition) and higher education officials (who were forced to request higher tuition) are deluding themselves if they really believe financial aid and grants are going to keep college affordable.

At some point - sooner rather than later - the gap between available financial aid and the cost of going to college will simply be too wide. It's going to swallow up students from middle-income families.

We understand why tuition is being raised dramatically right now. The state's subsidy for higher education has been reduced significantly leaving college officials with the option of curbing access or raising tuition. Providing the same or greater access to higher education is clearly the right call.

However, it's a huge mistake to believe this strategy is sustainable.

Last week the St. Louis Post-Dispatch took a look at the growing gap between financial aid and the cost of school for a freshman.

A freshman entering the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2006 who qualified for the maximum level of grant and work-study aid would have to come up with an additional $7,270 through loans, scholarships or a second job.

A freshman entering the university this fall is now looking at a gap of $12,724.

"It's a troubling trend in the eyes of college finance experts, who fear the cost of a degree may already be too high for some students. And there's no reason to think the trend will reverse itself. Even now, the government is talking about cutting Pell Grants - a key funding tool for low-income students. And most states are slashing higher education spending as they grapple with budget woes," wrote Post-Dispatch reporter Tim Barker.

As tuition increases, the money set aside for financial aid and grants is being used more quickly. At the same time, the recession has reduced the amount available for aid.

As a result, there is less money for future students. And as tuition continues to rise even less aid will be available.

This cycle has got to end. It's up to the Legislature to do so by establishing a minimum funding threshold for all state universities and colleges. These are public - state-owned - schools established so all citizens, not just the wealthy, would have an opportunity to obtain a college education.

Lawmakers need to accept their responsibility as stewards of public colleges and make sure they are adequately funded and remain affordable.

The Legislature might not be in a position to guarantee university funding until the fiscal crisis passes, but when the state sees a boost in revenue the first priority must be stabilizing higher education.

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