In the Senate this year we are looking to undo an historic three-decade mistake on the part of the state Legislature – its decision to allow college and university tuition to skyrocket. We are proposing an unprecedented rollback, an average tuition reduction of 25 percent over the next two years, together with a mechanism that would prevent dramatic increases in the future. We are hearing some very odd arguments against the idea, though, and I think it is important to address them here.
What we are really talking about is a change in our thinking about higher education. We need to recognize it is a state duty to keep college affordable. It wasn’t so long ago that students could work their way through college and graduate without debt. In 1981, tuition at the University of Washington was less than $700. During a budget crisis that year, lawmakers decided students could pay a smidgeon more and the state could pay a smidgeon less. Tuition has crept up virtually every year since. Today tuition at the UW is more than $12,000; in real terms it has tripled or quadrupled.
It wasn’t that the state was short on money. We had enough. We just spent it on other things, and in a subtle way we forced our young to finance state spending with their own credit cards. Today Washington students graduate with an average $24,000 in debt, the equivalent of a car loan. Their monthly payments force them to put off buying a house, getting married, striking off on their own. The heavy repayment obligation would make anyone think twice about the sort of lower-paying careers that hold society together – anything from social work to newspaper reporting.
Two years ago we took a first step toward addressing the problem, by freezing tuition. This year we propose a more permanent fix, by spending $220 million to reduce tuition. The arguments against this plan are puzzling. Some say we are defunding state financial aid programs – we aren’t. We just don’t need as much money because tuition is lower. We’ll still have 30,000 eligible students who will not receive financial aid, just as we do today – what critics fail to mention is that the number will not increase.
Others make the utterly false argument that this will somehow damage those who invested in the Guaranteed Education Tuition program, the state tuition-savings plan. The bill makes clear that those who purchased tuition credits in advance will be made whole. They won’t get the enormous return they expected – but that’s only because the state won’t be continuing its misguided policy of raising tuition every year.
And finally, some say higher education ought to have a dedicated funding source – some sort of tax-revenue stream all to itself. It is an idea that deserves consideration, though it might take years to win general support in the Legislature. The important point is that this does not preclude our plan – the ideas don’t compete.
This is something we can do here and now, with the funds we have available. The lesson of the last 35 years is that the best form of financial aid is to keep tuition low in the first place. We need to stop burdening our children, and allow them to move on with their lives and careers once they get that diploma.
Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, is chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.