I’ve used HA to advocate for moving to a high-tuition/high-financial-aid model in Washington’s four-year universities, pretty much since I started blogging, first in July of 2004, and at least once a year since (for example, here, here, here, and here). Hiking tuition is not a classically progressive policy proposal, and let me tell you, it didn’t win me many fans either in the comment threads or our state Democratic caucus.
But now that the Legislature is close to adopting this model via a bill that would grant “tuition flexibility” to the UW, WSU and Western, I gotta admit that I’m getting more than a little nervous.
See, the concept is rather simple. By mandating low in-state tuition prices, far below the actual cost to the university of providing an undergraduate education, the state has essentially been distributing the bulk of its funds directly to students in the form of a flat, per student subsidy, regardless of means. But under the new system, tuition would be allowed to gradually rise closer to actual costs, while financial aid grants and income thresholds rose accordingly, so as to keep higher education affordable to low and middle income families.
Indeed, with the extra revenue generated from those families who could afford to pay it, higher education could be made more affordable and more accessible. That is, assuming the state maintains its financial commitment to the state university system.
And that’s the assumption that’s making me nervous.
The whole point of this model is to offset higher tuition with higher financial aid, using the extra tuition revenue to help achieve this balance, but if the state uses new tuition revenue as an excuse for reducing its own expenses, that contract is irrevocably broken. My fear is that, with this tuition flexibility reform coming as a response to our state’s current budget crisis, legislators will view it primarily as a money-saving measure, and will treat it as such in subsequent budgets, resulting in a permanent reduction in future state funding for higher education. And honestly, I don’t want to play a role in enabling that.
We already don’t spend enough money to provide access to a quality higher education to all of our state’s young people, and we don’t need an excuse for legislators to spend even less. So while I obviously support tuition flexibility in theory, I cannot support it in practice unless the state makes the financial commitment necessary to assure that this reform makes higher eduction more accessible, not less. And I certainly cannot support it as a mere budgetary device.
Years ago, her mother and I bought our daughter four years of prepaid tuition through the state GET program, so higher in-state tuition will not impact us regardless of our means, should she attend a state university. Should our daughter attend a private or out-of-state university, higher in-state tuition would in fact result in a higher return on our investment.