The Seattle Times today reports on a proposal that would allow the University of Washington to become more like a private university, allowing tuition to rise towards market rates, while dramatically increasing need-based financial aid.
The idea would be to increase financial aid to students on a sliding scale based on income to help offset a large increase in tuition.
There are skeptics wary of such a move, but university officials pitch it as a kind of Robin Hood plan, where the families of rich students pay more to help subsidize tuition for students from middle- and low-income families.
I have long supported such measures — indeed I think it is inevitable — but I need to correct a mischaracterization in the above statement. Right now, taxpayers subsidize all students equally… even the children of the wealthy. Under the proposal, it is not fair to say that “the families of rich students pay more to help subsidize tuition for students from middle- and low-income families;” rather, the rich will simply be less subsidized than the poor. No tuition covers the full cost of a college education, and all students are subsidized to some degree, through taxes, endowment, research grants and other revenues.
I expect that many will have a knee-jerk reaction against this proposal, as low tuition is uniformly appealing. But Washington state is in the midst of an education funding crisis, where we simply do not have enough four-year slots to meet the growing needs of our expanding population. If taxpayers and legislators are unwilling to pay the cost of expanding our current system of across-the-board subsidies, then means-testing is really the only solution. The alternative is to let our university system decline, while denying access to an ever-growing number of applicants. This would not only be disastrous for our children, but in the long run, a disaster for our economy as well.
Another nit to pick in the article is that the reporters didn’t include comments from Reps. Fred Jarrett (Mercer Island) or Skip Priest (Federal Way), Republican legislators who deserve a lot of credit for a similar proposal that was part of their broader, education package, HB 1434. Due to the partisan nature of the previous legislative session, and the sponsors’ minority status, the bill got little consideration. Gov. Christine Gregoire sounds serious about exploring the UW tuition proposal, and I hope her education task force considers the entirety of the forward-thinking Jarrett/Priest bill… she may be surprised to find some strong bipartisan support.
Gregoire said she knows some lawmakers are worried about the idea, but said she wouldn’t endorse any approach that reduces access or hurts the middle class.
Still, something needs to be done, she said. “When I talk to companies about coming to Washington state and staying in Washington, not one of them has talked to me about the B&O [business and occupation] tax. Every employer has talked to me about education and whether the state is committed to education.
“We can’t allow budgets that are being consumed by skyrocketing health-care costs and unfunded mandates to lead our institutions to mediocrity. That’s what I see, stepping back, is happening.”
It’s comforting to know that Gov. Gregoire clearly understands one of our state’s most pressing problems. She’s got three years and five months to prove to voters that she can fix it.