HA regulars know that I’ve long crusaded for rethinking the way we finance higher education in Washington state (most recently here, here, here and here), arguing for a move away from flat, per-student subsidies, and toward a system where universities would have the option of allowing tuition to rise toward market rates, while funneling a much larger portion of their state funding into needs-based financial aid programs.
Silly, wacko, commie, lefty, fringe idea? Well, given our current budget crisis, no less a mainstream voice than the Seattle Times editorial board doesn’t seem to think so:
THE tuition wars are coming. Over the next few weeks, Washington residents will have to think hard about what they are willing to pay to maintain quality and access at institutions of higher learning.
Demand for higher education has never been higher. Tuition should increase more than the state Senate proposed: 7 percent annually for four-year institutions and 5 percent for community colleges.
No one suggests that cavalierly. Help for middle- and low-income students will be increased.
But a sizable increase in tuition may be the only way to avoid ridiculously large class sizes or doors closed to students seeking an education in their home state.
That’s not much, but it’s an opening, and it shows a willingness from the opinion leaders at our state’s largest daily to use this crisis as an opportunity rethink our state’s long held stubborn assumption that the current “low tuition” model is the best way to expand access to higher education to low and middle income families. Increase tuition while increasing financial aid—that is the policy that lies at the heart of the “high tuition/high financial aid” model I have long promoted.
And it’s not just me and my new allies at the Times. A couple weeks ago Rep. Reuven Carlyle (D-36) wrote a guest column in the Times advocating for exactly this approach:
Compared with other premier public and private universities nationwide, the price of attending Washington’s universities is a smoking-hot deal for students. A bachelor’s degree from them is generally a ticket to tremendous lifelong economic opportunity, yet its cost is a fraction of similar public and private universities in other states.
That’s why, alongside a much more aggressive effort to improve how the universities spend public dollars, I believe it is time to actually raise tuition and use the new dollars to substantially increase both access and meaningful new financial aid for the middle class.
Our state’s tuition structure is backward, regressive and inefficient: We are today using precious tax dollars to in effect take money from the vast majority of genuine middle-class families in order to subsidize wealthier families who haven’t asked for a huge subsidy and have the ability to pay much more than they currently do under our current flat-rate “low tuition” policy.
As we write the most difficult state budget in generations, I’m pushing hard for comprehensive tuition-policy reform. I’m strongly advocating a proposal to grant our state’s public four-year universities the authority to raise resident undergraduate tuition by up to 12 percent annually, elevating the existing 7-percent cap. The schools would be required to designate a substantial portion of the new revenue toward new grants targeted at middle-class students.
And it’s not simply a lefty, Democratic proposal either. Back in 2005, Republican legislators introduced a higher education reform bill that would have, amongst other things, moved to high tuition/high financial aid model as well.
That old trope about the Chinese word for “crisis” being a combination of the words for “danger” and “opportunity” may not be exactly accurate, but it doesn’t make it any less apt. This budget crisis presents an enormous opportunity to rethink some of our state’s core policies, and reform them outside the usual political dithering afforded during an ordinary budget year. As I have previously explained, if properly implemented, a high tuition/high financial aid model could increase overall funding for higher education while decreasing costs to lower and middle income families. Go ahead, check my math.
Then again, I’m just some foul-mouthed blogger. Perhaps with a bit more forceful effort from my friends at the Times and other credible opinion leaders, we might be able to push lawmakers in the right direction.