Let’s keep the ‘public’ in public higher education

March 29, 2013 

We all benefit when we make investments in the public good, including in our schools, roads, bridges, parks, publicly funded research and, of course, our public universities and colleges. Now more than ever, if we want to sustain a healthy middle class and generate a new wave of economic growth, we must keep the “public” in public higher education.

In 1943, the G.I. Bill enabled millions of veterans to attend college. This was not just an investment in people, it was an investment in communities across our nation. And this investment played a critical role in moving our nation from a war economy to a consumer economy.

The result was a period of great prosperity. Between the late 1940s and the late 1970s, income was dispersed relatively equally, long-term growth was shared, and what we now know as the middle class emerged. For people from lower-income backgrounds, higher education has been a gateway to the middle class. For the middle class, it provides a path to economic security and prosperity.

In recent years, however, we’ve reversed that investment. To balance the budget during the Great Recession, the state slashed funding for higher education in half. Tuition has doubled.

In 2000, the state paid for 72 percent of the cost of a student’s education, with tuition accounting for the rest. In 2013, those numbers have flipped; the state now pays only 35 percent – and the gateway to middle-class success is being closed to the low- and middle-income students who need those opportunities the most.

We have proposed legislation to get us back on track. To avoid increases in tuition over the next two years, SB 5420 would fulfill the Council of Presidents’ request for an additional $225 million in state support to our four-year institutions. A similar bill, SB 5673, would freeze tuition at community and technical colleges. This will also help preserve the Guaranteed Education Tuition program that enables many Washingtonians to afford college.

At the same time, we need to make sure state funds are being spent as effectively as possible. We expect that our colleges and universities will need to produce an additional 19,000 degrees above current levels to meet today’s demand. Just as we factor in a caseload forecast for K-12 enrollments as part of the budgeting process, SB 5421 would require projections for higher education slots as well.

We propose to have 50 percent of higher education funding come from state support and 50 percent from tuition by the year 2020. As a part of reaching our 50/50 by 2020 goal, we must link funding to key metrics such as degrees awarded, serving underserved communities, and keeping tuition growth slow and stable. SB 5390 would convene a task force to focus on implementing such a program.

Members of the Republican majority recently proposed a plan to increase spending for higher education. We were encouraged to hear them embrace similar goals. We have to work with them on a final budget proposal for higher education that moves us in a new direction on state support, tuition and financial aid.

If we fail to properly fund higher education, this vital gateway to middle-class success will become a privilege reserved for the wealthy. Under our current course, this precious public good will soon be rarified into a private perk. That would be devastating for our families, our businesses or our communities.

State Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, serves on the Senate Higher Education Committee. State Sen. Jeanne Kohl Wells, D-Seattle, is the ranking member on the committee.

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