State Senate Republicans are blaming Democrats for rising tuition at our state colleges and universities. Of course they are. And they’re right. Democrats are to blame. But more so the Republicans.
For while Republicans didn’t officially seize control of the Senate until Rodney Tom and Tom Sheldon betrayed their constituents in 2013, thanks to the disloyalty of “roadkill” Dems, Republicans more or less controlled the Senate budget-writing process for some time. In fact, back in 2011, former Republican Senator Joe Zarelli personally boasted to me that he wrote the Senate budget, not then Democratic Ways & Means chair Ed Murray.
But whatever. I’m less interested in apportioning the blame than I am in fixing the problem. And this sort of bullshit doesn’t help:
Bailey fingers a “lack of commitment by elected leaders” but also a lack of accountability on the part of universities as the causes of ballooning tuition that has “functioned like a tax on our middle-class families.”
“For years higher education funding has been used as a piggy bank to offset funding reductions in other areas of the budget,” she wrote. “As we work through the budget process and policy proposals, it is important to hold the line on higher education funding. We also expect higher education institutions to hold the line on tuition increases.”
Oy. How many times do I have to go through this? It’s not the cost of a college education that’s skyrocketing, it’s the price:
As you can see from the chart above, adjusted for inflation, the cost of educating a student has remained relatively flat over the past two decades. Tuition has been rising not in response to rising costs, but as a direct response to cuts in state funding.
No doubt there’s room for universities to try to be more accountable and efficient, but it’s not accountability that’s been the problem. It’s a lack of funding. And the only way for universities to hold the line on tuition increases is for legislators to hold the line on funding. (Or, I suppose, we could just offer a cheaper, lower quality college education. Is that what Senator Bailey is arguing for? I don’t think so.)
Yes, state lawmakers have used higher education as a piggy bank of sorts. But that’s not because Democrats hate higher education. It’s because there’s so little truly discretionary spending available to cut in the state budget. And Republicans have made it impossible to raise taxes.
That’s the problem. Collectively, our taxes are too low to sustain the government we want and need. In fact, as a percentage of income, our state and local taxes are now 20 percent lower than they were 20 years ago. If Republicans want to argue that we should be spending more money on higher ed, then they need to tell us which taxes they want to raise or which social service programs they want to cut. Because that’s the only other place to find the money.
So good on Senator Bailey for recognizing that tuition hikes function like a tax on middle-class families. We all agree. Now if only she and her fellow Republicans would permit a conversation replacing this virtual tax with a real tax on the wealthy households who can afford it.