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Tuesday, May 30, 2023
May 30, 2023

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Jayne: Higher education deserves support

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

It’s a good idea. Bills that unanimously pass both chambers of the Legislature usually are good ideas.

But in considering Senate Bill 5079, which was signed this spring by Gov. Jay Inslee, it is easy to read more into the legislation. To ponder the societal shifts of the past 40 years or so. To reflect on how two generations of policy changes have diminished our middle class and have made life more difficult for people who are now young adults.

Senate Bill 5079 instructs the state Office of Financial Management to alter the date for setting the maximum tuition increase for state colleges and universities. Now, administrators must know by Oct. 1 how much they can consider increasing tuition for the next school year.

Like we said, it’s a good idea. The deadline is six months earlier than the previous deadline, and that will give administrators and students a bit of a head start in planning their finances for the future.

And yet, any discussion about tuition at public universities should result in a bit of reflection. Not that long ago, after all, higher education was uniformly regarded as a public good. If a state would make public institutions accessible and affordable, it would prepare the leaders and innovators and workers of future generations.

In 1976, for example, state governments provided 60 percent of the funding for public colleges throughout the country. Writes Heather McGhee in her 2021 book “The Sum of Us”: “The remainder translated into modest tuition bills — just $617 at a four-year college in 1976, and a student could receive a federal Pell Grant for as much as $1,400 against that and living expenses.”

That, of course, is not the case now. “The average public college tuition has nearly tripled since 1991,” McGhee writes, “helping bring its counterpart, skyrocketing student debt, to the level of $1.5 trillion in 2020. This represents an alarming stealth privatization of America’s public colleges.”

Here’s one example: Until 1970, admission and tuition throughout the University of California system was free to in-state students. Now, after years of state budgets cuts, in-state tuition at Cal-Berkeley is $14,226 — still a bargain, but definitely not free.

Three years ago, the National Education Association determined that 32 states were spending less on public colleges and universities than they were in 2008. The Great Recession caused many states to slash public investment in learning, and most had not fully replaced those funds more than a decade later.

McGhee thinks all of this is a result of racism; as colleges became more accessible for people of color rather than mostly the purview of white students, the public was less eager to spend money on those institutions. That is a thought-provoking premise, but it’s an argument for another time. For now, we’ll focus the discussion on state funding for public universities.

Compared with most states, Washington has made great strides. According to year-by-year data compiled by the National Science Foundation, in 2000 Washington ranked 28th in per-student funding for state schools; by 2021 it ranked ninth.

Following budget cuts during the Great Recession, the Legislature worked to increase funding and increase access to financial aid. But Washington’s move in the rankings is as much a result of other states acting as laggards.

In 2019, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote: “Deep state cuts in funding for higher education over the last decade have contributed to rapid, significant tuition increases and pushed more of the costs of college to students, making it harder for them to enroll and graduate. These cuts also have worsened racial and class inequality, since rising tuition can deter low-income students and students of color from college.”

With help from COVID stimulus money, funding for public colleges throughout the country has increased over the past two years. But unless that becomes a continuing trend, unless our states invest in the future, unless the public recognizes the value of an educated populace, we’re going to need a lot more good ideas to avoid an abyss.