Students throughout Washington and, more important, their parents received a break this year from the state legislature. Lawmakers provided a 14 percent increase in funding for state colleges and universities — including community colleges and technical schools — while mandating a one-year tuition freeze.
Considering that tuition costs had nearly doubled over the previous four years, the temporary freeze provides a much-needed respite. But the reality of rising college costs and strapped state budgets suggests that the freeze is simply that — temporary.
Before the tuition freeze, an analysis prepared by Washington’s prepaid-tuition program suggested that the cost of attending a top public university will surpass $20,000 a year for in-state students by the end of the decade.
Washington, of course, is not alone in dealing with rising tuition costs. Throughout the nation, state legislatures have spent the past several years reducing funding for colleges and universities, leading to an increase in the burden placed upon those paying tuition. Nationally, tuition now accounts for about 50 percent of revenue for the schools, compared with 25 percent in the late 1980s.
Which brings us to a recent proposal from President Obama regarding the rising cost of higher education. The federal government provides about $150 billion a year in student aid, and Obama wants to use that as a prod to alter how colleges do business. The crux of the proposal: tie federal aid to ratings that assess a college’s tuition, graduation rates, debt incurred by students, income levels of graduates, and the percentage of lower-income students that attend a particular school.
Colleges would be compared with similar institutions, and those that score well on the matrix would find federal aid more accessible for their students through federal grants and more affordable student loans. Currently, federal aid is disbursed based upon how many students a college has, regardless of what percentage eventually graduate of how much debt those students incur.
Some aspects of Obama’s plan would require an act of Congress which, given the contentious atmosphere in Washington, D.C., leads to questions about whether it is realistic. Yet we agree that the federal government must work to make college more affordable and more accessible.
College, more than ever, is the best path for creating a prosperous future. It’s not the only path, but it can transform lives and greatly increase lifetime earning power. Ensuring that deserving students are able to go to college — those with talent and desire, rather than simply those with the means to attend — also will play an important role in stemming the forces that are resulting in a diminished middle class in this country.
While Obama’s plan is worth considering, any alterations to the financing of tuition must be done with the students — and parents — in mind. In February, the administration introduced an online scorecard that provides prospective students with information about graduation rates and the typical debt incurred by students. That ability for direct comparison will lead colleges to place more emphasis on factors that should be important to families when selecting a college.
Choosing to attend college is not the appropriate path for all students, and the housing crisis of recent years demonstrated the dangers of federal intervention in order to make something “affordable for everybody.” But, as students in Washington have learned, if changes aren’t put in place then college will be affordable for hardly anybody.