For the first time in 27 years, college students in Washington will not be facing a tuition increase. How long that can be sustained depends on future support from the Legislature, but sighs of relief could be heard all over the state.
To get an idea of just how long ago it was when tuition last went unchanged: Ronald Reagan was the president and Booth Gardner was the governor. In their spare time, college students played Asteroids and Frogger. The hot movie was “Top Gun,” which could be seen for $2.75.
It’s been so long that graduates in the Class of 1986 have their own college-age kids. Except today’s resident students are looking at an annual tuition-and-fees bill of $11,396, rather than their parent’s price tag of $1,606. If the cost of college had merely tracked inflation, according to the Consumer Price Index, Washington State University’s tuition would be $3,413.
But that was back when the state picked up most of the cost of educating students. It wasn’t that long ago that the split was 70-30, but the equation has flipped as the state withdrew support. Hence, the large increases in tuition – a 75 percent jump at WSU in the last four years – as universities scrambled to cover costs without eroding quality.
Many legislators have said, rightly, that these increases need to be reined in. But given all of the obligations of state government today, including the Supreme Court mandate to boost K-12 education funding and the inexorable rise in health care costs, it isn’t likely that we’ll be returning to the old funding equation for higher education. Senate Republicans have set a long-term goal of a 50-50 split in funding, which is more realistic.
With the just-completed budget, the Legislature has announced its intent to reverse the funding slide; plus it earmarked significant dollars for opening more slots in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. For example, WSU is getting $5.7 million to increase the number of those coveted STEM graduates. WSU Spokane will be getting $2 million to buy equipment for the Biomedical and Health Sciences Building.
This is smart spending, because the state produces the most STEM-related jobs per capita in the nation, but is in the bottom five among states in producing bachelor’s degrees in those fields. Each year, the state’s colleges turn away qualified students who want to major in STEM disciplines. In 2005, Utah produced five times as many computer science graduates per 1,000 jobs in that field than Washington. Limiting STEM slots on Washington campuses would be like Iowa skimping on agriculture-related diplomas.
Rectifying this funding mismatch will require sustained attention, so that those who live in this state can aspire to lucrative STEM-related careers without having to go elsewhere for college. Key employers have made it clear this is a top priority for them, and university presidents are on board – as long as they have the funding.
The public could help by sending their legislators a note. Thank them for their decision this time, and let them know it’s now an expectation. Because once every generation is not enough.