In Our View: Dig Deep, Parents

As tuition rates soar, one new program offers hope for middle-income families

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They call it higher education for multiple reasons, Washingtonians are suddenly realizing. Tuition rates are soaring at public colleges and universities in the state. Parents of middle-school and high-school students are seeing higher hurdles placed in their paths as they chart the course for their children to get a college education.

Double-digit percentage increases have been enacted at most state colleges in each of the past two years. More increases are expected in the next two school years. At Washington State University, for example, tuition is expected to jump by 16 percent in the coming academic year.

This challenge is nothing new for parents of college-bound students. Our parents and their parents knew a college degree is expensive. But now, the challenge is much greater. The traditional strategy — find a way, some way, to pay for it all — remains the most likely choice for parents who believe their children going to college is a non-negotiable plan. More jobs (for the parents and the kids), more loans, more desperate searches for scholarships and grants … all become part of the solution.

One small, new ray of hope emerged last Monday when Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the Opportunity Scholarship Act. Her signature triggered one of the most powerful funding formulas: the public-private partnership. Boeing Co. and Microsoft Corp have each pledged $25 million in the next five years to a new college scholarship program. The permanent endowment is designed to help students from middle-income families. Recipients will come from families with incomes as high as $98,000 for a family of four.

These grants will not be game changers. They’ll start at $1,000 each. But as any parent of a college-bound student will agree, every dollar counts. The first awards will go out in December, and what’s especially attractive about the Opportunity Scholarship Act is its potential for rapid and significant growth. With more participation from the private sector, the long-term hope to is build a $1 billion endowment, with interest funding many more scholarships far into the future.

State Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, is prime sponsor of the Opportunity Scholarship Act, and he deserves high praise for a couple of provisions in the plan. First, the state’s match of private funds will increase to dollar-for-dollar when the state’s revenue recovers to 10 percent more than the state received in 2008. That could take a long time, many would say, and they’re right. But it’s good to have the standard in place. Second, let’s suppose state revenue goes gangbusters, and boom times return. What then? The endowment stipulates that the state’s overall contribution is capped at $50 million. Another good idea.

Probst was quoted in a recent Columbian story: “Washington is the first state in the nation to create a scholarship program like this. We hope that other companies will follow Microsoft’s and Boeing’s incredible example.” Parents of countless teenagers share that hope.

Some would argue that state scholarships should be reserved only for the neediest students, but in a private-public partnership, and with the recession eroding the higher-education-hopes of middle-income families, the Opportunity Scholarship Act makes sense.

It’s not a cure-all, just another boost down the path that has become littered with hurdles higher than most parents anticipated.