State college opportunity remains in Great Recession

The News TribuneApril 7, 2013 

Some lawmakers have big plans for helping students get college and technical degrees. Unfortunately, they don’t have big plans for paying for it.

The Legislature’s record of funding college opportunity is abysmal, even factoring in the economic whirlwinds of the Great Recession. It typically uses the higher education system – universities, community and technical colleges – as a fiscal piggy bank. It’s the easiest thing to break when money runs short.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently released a report on what’s happened to public colleges since the recession hit. On average, it said, states have cut spending on students by an average of 28 percent over the last five years.

But Washington occupies a special place. Along with Florida, Idaho and South Carolina, it has slashed its system by roughly 40 percent.

That kind of fiscal butchery has real effects on real people. The colleges may still exist, but their programs get hollowed out. Star faculty member start to leave for greener pastures. Overcrowding makes it hard for students to take the sequential classes they need to graduate. They get frozen out of engineering and technical programs.

The best that can be said for this year’s proposals is that they don’t set out to pillage the system even more. Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget is the most generous. It would provide $300 million, preserving the funding status quo. It doesn’t have gimmicks like the Senate’s 20 percent tax on international students, which would defeat its own purpose by driving those high-paying customers right out of the system.

Against this bleak backdrop, two proposed “expansions” of financial need are almost bitter jokes.

One would offer need grants – the state’s chief form of financial aid – to students who were smuggled into the United States illegally as children. These are kids who are American in every way but immigration status.

Another would offer need grants to students at Western Governors University, a nonprofit online institution – accredited and chartered in this state – that offers serious academic degrees to a current enrollment of 4,400 full-time equivalent students. A Washingtonian can now get financial aid to be a hair stylist but not to earn a master’s in education from WGU.

These are both good ideas. We’d love to see them happen. The problem is, the expanded eligibility for financial aid doesn’t look like it would come with any actual money attached. There are 32,000 students already eligible but unable to get grants. Increasing that number by thousands would not be progress.

This isn’t an argument for abandoning plans for broader eligibility; it’s an argument for doing right by all Washington students. More need grants are needed.

As the Legislature scrambles for more public school funding, it ought to be scrambling just as hard to offer high school graduates affordable college opportunities – pathways to success, not dead-end diplomas.

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