James Sulton, the executive director of the Higher Education Coordinating Board raises concerns over what would happen to GET, the state’s prepaid tuition program, if Washington’s universities are permitted to set undergraduate tuition rates themselves.
Sulton worries that higher-education costs could soar if universities set tuition and that, worst case, the GET program would have to bar new participants until its finances recovered.
The state is on the hook to make sure people who’ve already bought prepaid tuition get what they’re promised. The Higher Education Coordinating Board members have not discussed Sulton’s concerns, a spokesperson said.
Sulton notes that Ohio, Texas and Virginia had to close their prepaid tuition programs to new participants after universities were allowed to set tuition and substantially increased their prices.
Hmm. First a disclaimer. We bought our daughter 400 units of GET tuition credit back in 2002 at $42 a unit. So not only have we realized a nearly 10 percent annual return during a time of low interest rates, but we’re entirely immune to local tuition increases. (Indeed, if my daughter decides to go out of state, we actually benefit from local tuition increases. Go figure.)
That said, I have been a longtime supporter (here and here) of letting tuition at state universities rise closer to market rates, while reducing the flat, per student state subsidy and moving towards a financial aid model.
As with K-12 education, the state has been underfunding our colleges and universities for years, and as I see it we now have three choices. We can: A) increase state spending on higher education, thus maintaining quality and access while keeping tuition costs affordable, or B) maintain quality and access by rationing state funds by allowing tuition rates to rise towards the actual cost of education while subsidizing only those students who require financial aid, or C) continue down the road we’re on where we fail to increase the number of slots to meet growing demand, and allow overall quality to decline.
Option C should be downright unacceptable. Personally, I’d prefer a combination of options A and B. We do need to spend more on higher education. But we also need to spend our money more wisely, and it simply does not make any sense to subsidize the tuition of children from families who can afford to pay the full cost.
This is not just an issue of money; it’s an issue of access. Right now, because every student is subsidized, our limited financial resources results in a limited number of slots available to all students, which means many qualified students are being turned away from our four-year universities. But if those who could afford to pay full fare did, it would free up state funds to open more slots, thus increasing access for all.
I know talk about higher tuition rates raises fears about shutting out low and middle income students, but it doesn’t matter how affordable our universities are if you can’t get in… or they suck. Education is our state’s single most important economic investment, and quite simply, we get what we pay for. If we buy ourselves a second-rate university system, our children will inherit a second-rate economy.