In Our View: Higher Ed Uncertainties

Parents, students to do their part; politicians also should be willing to act

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Attention, parents who hold aspirations of higher education for your children. No matter how young they might be, it's not too soon to start planning and saving. Ample proof comes in an op-ed written earlier this month for The Seattle Times by Sandi Halimuddin, a recent graduate of the University of Washington.

According to Halimuddin: "Over the past 10 years, the cost of public higher education has risen more than 104 percent. … In Washington state alone, more than half of university students graduate with $22,244 of average debt." For that, Washingtonians can blame, for the most part, double-digit annual increases in tuition over the past few years.

As daunting as those statistics might appear, they paint only part of the picture that modern parents confront as they try to prepare to pay for their sons' and daughters' degrees. Another article in The Times, by higher education reporter Katherine Long, reveals the challenge to be especially imposing for middle-income parents and students "because they are caught between two financial realities: Their family incomes are too high for them to get financial aid but too low to pay for much — or sometimes any — of their schooling."

It might provide a little consolation if we could report that elected officials are trying to help parents and college students solve this problem. Sadly, though, at both the state and federal levels, foot-dragging politicians are making matters worse by prolonging the uncertainties.

In Olympia, legislators can count higher education as one of many government functions that are held hostage as the budget wrangling extends deep into the second special session. Many tuition decisions have yet to be made. Institutions and students are left wondering how to plan. No one is sure about the cost of college finances, except that they will be painfully high.

In Washington, D.C., members of Congress are facing a July 1 deadline, after which, without their action, interest rates on the most popular form of student loans will double. As the Los Angeles Times reports: "The twist is that, instead of picking another fight with Democrats over how to cover the cost of the program, Republicans are backing a long-term solution that's similar to one President Obama proposed in his latest budget. Obama and his fellow Democrats, however, are now holding out for a more comprehensive deal that addresses other higher-education programs."

Even if a best-case scenario unfolds, times will continue to be tougher for parents and students trying to pay for higher education. In Long's story, she reported that "78 percent of Washington (state) families don't make enough money to be able to pay tuition, fees and living expenses at any of the state's four-year schools out of their yearly earnings." Long cited figures from the Washington Student Achievement Council, which replaced the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Most parents are willing to do whatever it takes to pay for their children's higher education. It's time for politicians to match the parents' intensity of resolve.