With the school year drawing near, college students in Washington and their families are reaping the benefits of what happens when lawmakers work together for the good of the public.
Last year, the Legislature passed — unanimously in both chambers — a bill that is trimming tuition costs at the state’s public colleges. Community college and technical schools immediately cut tuition by 5 percent from their 2014-15 rates; regional schools such as Eastern Washington and Western Washington enacted cuts that will reach 20 percent this year; and the University of Washington and Washington State University have shaved 15 percent off tuition costs from two years ago.
The immediate impact is to make higher education more affordable for Washington families — a recognition of the investment in the future that public colleges represent. Last year, a study from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences reported: “In an interconnected and rapidly changing world, the United States requires an educated citizenry to support a constant flow of research and innovation and to sustain its international competitiveness. Public research universities are a foundational piece of the U.S. educational infrastructure that meets this need.”
Making college more affordable for all students who have the talent or desire to attend will benefit Washington for generations to come. An educated work force is essential for continuing and expanding the state’s status as a hub of high-tech innovation, and higher education is essential to helping families break a cycle of poverty. Equally important is the fact that Washington has taken the lead in addressing skyrocketing student debt, allowing students to attend college while being saddled with fewer loans. Nationally, student debt has more than tripled over the past two decades, a fact that hampers young adults as they begin their careers.
Making tuition cuts a reality was not easy for lawmakers. As The Seattle Times reported last year, a compromise was forged when Democrats in the House of Representatives proposed freezing tuition and spending more money on financial aid, and a deal was brokered when Republicans agreed to close some tax loopholes and pay for an actual reduction in tuition.
The plan easily could have slipped into the realm of unsustainable and irresponsible, but lawmakers also provided an additional $160 million to the state’s colleges to fill in the funding gaps created by a decline in tuition. “We’re tickled pink,” Joan King, WSU’s chief financial officer, recently told The (Spokane) Spokesman-Review. “We’ve never seen a tuition decrease before. We’re very happy with the way it worked.”
For that, lawmakers deserve kudos. While it is human nature — and a natural inclination of the media — to focus upon the failures of lawmakers, it also is important to point out their successes. In the future, tuition rates in Washington will be tied to the state’s median family wage, hopefully providing some long-lasting relief from costs that previously had increased by about 10 percent per year. “This is really about giving higher ed a better seat at the table when it comes to building the budget,” state Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, told The Seattle Times last year.
It also is about providing opportunity — the kind that positions Washington for a bright future and puts success within reach of more and more students.