FRIDAY, JUNE 10, 2011

Editorial: State must keep higher education attainable

Eastern Washington University is looking at raising tuition by 11 percent for the 2011-’12 school year, and that’s the good news. Elsewhere, Washington State University regents just approved a 16 percent tuition increase and a similar hike is expected for the University of Washington, because of the Legislature’s $500 million in cuts to the state’s universities and colleges over the next two years.

It seems to be the never-ending story for higher education. After financing K-12 education and health and social services, legislators have little left over for higher education. Over the 2009-’11 biennium, four of the six state universities and colleges collected more money from tuition than they did from state government. That’s the first time that’s occurred, but it won’t be the last.

In reaction to this trend, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a bill that handed them tuition-setting authority, so they can maintain quality and have more predictability in their budgeting. It was the best move given the circumstances, but it raises justifiable fears about shutting out students from low- and middle-income families.

However, there have been some developments that demonstrate that this worry is being taken seriously.

On the same day Gregoire signed the bill, Microsoft Corp. and Boeing Co. pledged $25 million each to the new Washington Opportunity Scholarship program. The goal is to raise $1 billion in private money over the next decade to finance scholarships for low- and middle-income students seeking undergraduate degrees in high-demand fields, such as health care, technology and engineering.

Many employers say these jobs, which require strong science and math backgrounds, are the kind they have had trouble filling with in-state candidates.

In addition, the State Need Grant, which helps low-income students with direct aid, was one of the few programs that saw its budget increase, getting a 32 percent hike. But because of tuition hikes in recent years, the program probably won’t be able to greatly increase how many students it helps, which is about 70,000 now. So the waiting list will remain long.

One avenue for future students is the College Bound scholarship, which asks eighth-graders from low-income households to pledge to graduate from high school with reasonable grades and stay out of trouble in exchange for state-paid full tuition. The annual sign-up ends June 30.

The increasingly large debt loads of college students attest to the challenge of attendance. It’s nice to see that private businesses and the state have stepped up financial aid for the truly needy, but it isn’t enough.

When the economic and revenue situation improves, the state will have to do more to ensure that the promise of higher education extends to all who are willing and able.

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