Last year, when university presidents lobbied for, the legislature passed, and the governor signed a 30% increase in college tuition over two years, promises were made that this would help keep higher education more affordable, not less. How? By increasing the total amount of financial aid dollars available, and by raising the income levels under which families qualify for financial aid, those who could afford to pay more would pay more, while those who couldn’t would pay less.
That is the high-tuition/high-financial aid model as practiced successfully by many private and some public universities, and it’s a model that can work… as long as public officials keep their promises.
One year later, with the governor and legislature looking to fill an additional $2.6 billion hole in the last year of our current two-year state budget, there’s talk that the state could eliminate financial aid altogether, saving $272 million in the process. But even a partial reduction in financial aid would be both a breach of public trust, and a disastrous public policy.
I understand the temptation to paint a worse case scenario as the governor and other Democratic leaders prepare to rally the troops in favor of a revenue package, but college financial aid must be explicitly taken off the table now, before any further damage is done. Cutting financial aid would surely interrupt the education of thousands of Washington students, but the mere talk of it is disruptive in itself, as many needy students will put off their college plans rather than face such financial uncertainty. Such talk also poisons the well, undermining faith in our elected officials to do right by our state’s young people, and ultimately making it even more difficult to enact further higher education funding reforms.
Promises were made, and they must be kept; our higher education system is simply too important to the welfare and prosperity of our state to do otherwise.