Yesterday the Seattle Times editorial board argued that the Governor and the Legislature should balance the state budget without raising any taxes. They don’t explain why we shouldn’t raise any taxes, it’s just kinda a given behind all their editorials, which they apparently don’t feel they have to explain. But that’s not my concern for the moment.
Instead I want to briefly talk about how we fund higher education in Washington state, spurred on by this line item from the Times’ list of possible cuts:
• $600 million — Cut seats in state universities and community colleges. Cut some tuition waivers. Offset some cuts with increased tuition.
Of course, with unemployment rising, we’re already seeing a spike in demand, particularly at our state’s community colleges, as students of all ages seek the training and retraining necessary to compete for jobs in our rapidly changing economy, so the last thing you want to do during an economic downturn is to cut seats and raise tuition, thus denying unemployed and underemployed workers the opportunity to better their job prospects. But then, education comprises by far the largest chunk of our state budget, so it’s hard to imagine pulling education cuts entirely off the table.
There is another solution though, that I’ve written about before, that could absorb some of these cuts in the short term, while allowing for an expansion of seats in the future, without costing taxpayers a dime: dramatically raise tuition near market rates, while broadly expanding our state’s financial aid system.
Essentially, under our current system, every college student in the state is heavily subsidized, whether they need the subsidy or not. This broad, per student subsidy lowers tuition rates for all, but still leaves college unaffordable for many potential applicants. But perhaps worse, it strains our college and university system’s resources, leaving it unable to expand the number of seats available to meet existing demand.
But if we were to shift a larger portion of the state subsidy toward financial aid, while allowing tuition rates to rise, those students who can afford to pay the full cost of their education will do so, leaving more state resources to fund the education of those students who cannot.
When we talk about budget cuts, in education or elsewhere, we are talking about rationing. Right now, with our broad, per student subsidy, we ration access to education. Under a high tuition/high financial aid model we can maintain and expand access to higher education while rationing the state subsidy.
Hiking tuition is never popular, but then nothing about the upcoming budget is going to be popular. So why not take advantage of this crisis to put higher education funding on a solid footing for the future?