Over the past few years higher education in Washington state has seen its public funding slashed. This has forced the various universities and colleges to boost tuition dramatically.
Now, to be fair, lawmakers didn’t have many options. The state has been digging itself out of multi-billion dollar holes year after year. So when state spending has to be reduced, higher education is the largest target. Unlike social programs and primary-secondary education, higher education funding isn’t mandated by the federal governmentor state constitution.
The double-digit increases in tuition are going to take a toll on Washington state. Lack of funding will reduce the number of people who can afford to go to college. Others will choose not to go because they will figure the value of a higher education isn’t worth the tens of thousands of dollars in loans that will bury them in debt by the time they graduate.
It’s madness and it has to stop.
Unfortunately, halting the surge in tuition remains a huge task. The recent fiscal woes are still being felt. Anticipated tax collections are down but requests to spend are not down.
What’s needed is a plan to establish a minimum-funding threshold for higher education. But how?
Senate Republicans have gotten behind a plan developed by Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane and chairman of the Senate Way and Means Committee.
The proposal aims to increase public funding for higher education by 10 percent while reducing student tuition by 3 percent.
In addition, the plan would allocate $50 million in new performance funding for four-year colleges based on a variety of measurable factors such as the average time it takes to complete an undergraduate degree.
This is not mandating funding, but it’s an approach heading in the right direction.
Some might scoff at Baumgartner’s idea because of the state’s money trouble. The Legislature is facing a $1 billion shortfall in the next two-year budget cycle and also trying to come up with another $1 billion to meet a state Supreme Court order to expand funding for K-12 education.
It will be extremely difficult, but finding $350 million in a budget of over $30 billion is far from impossible. The budget process is a marathon, so details will emerge in the weeks ahead.
The exact number of dollars suggested by Baumgartner might not work for this plan, but the concept is nevertheless intriguing.
And Senate Democrats did not simply dismiss the plan because it is a Republican idea. Instead, they said they are encouraged that the mostly Republican majority in the Senate is embracing increased funding for colleges.
“The bottom line is, we’re open to the conversation — we’re not sure the numbers will add up,” said state Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle and a member of the Senate Higher Education Committee.
The optimistic tone coming from both sides of the political aisle as well as a shared desire to boost higher education funding is promising. Very promising.