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College must be affordable

The desire for good universities and colleges is nearly universal. Democrats and Republicans praise higher education, but for decades elected officials of both parties have failed to make funding for higher education a priority.

This is especially true here in Washington. Twenty years ago, the state picked up about $15,000 of higher education costs while a student paid about $2,000. The state’s portion has since decreased to about 36 percent of the total cost, with the student paying the vast majority.

In just the previous five years, funding for higher education was cut in half.

This is not a result of the recession and the limited funds available to state budget writers. The sad truth is that the Legislature consciously defunded higher education. While overall state spending increased dramatically, far outpacing the rate of inflation plus population growth, non-capital state spending on higher education actually decreased by 8 percent per student.

I cannot say why previous lawmakers chose this catastrophic course of action. However, since arriving at the state Senate, I have worked to reverse this trend. For the first time in 27 years, that is exactly what we did.

When the new 2013-15 operating budget became law June 30, it effectively froze tuition at state colleges and universities for two years. The Legislature increased state support for higher education by $338 million. As a result, for the first time since 1986, students won’t see tuition increases.

While the Legislature didn’t achieve the level of reform detailed in my 10-3-50 plan – which would have increased state funding for higher education by 10 percent, reduced the cost of in-state tuition by 3 percent and allocated $50 million in new performance funding – I am pleased that it spurred this historic bipartisan achievement.

Making college affordable again was, and will continue to be, a tough fight.

No legislator will say he or she doesn’t care about higher education. Unfortunately, very few have been willing to make it a budget priority. Until my proposal to reduce tuition by 3 percent focused public attention on the issue, the governor and legislative Democrats wanted a 10 percent increase in tuition at four-year universities.

The Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, a command to increase funding for basic education, will continue pressuring lawmakers to focus every state dollar on that area of the budget. Also, as they did this year, Democrats will continue pushing for higher social-welfare spending for adults at the expense of higher education.

I intend to work hard now and into the 2014 session to further increase state support for higher education and protect students from burdensome tuition hikes. While this tuition freeze is historic, and a great start, it cannot be the end. We must work to make college tuition more affordable for our middle-class families.

Just as K-12 education was essential in the 20th century, higher education and training is critical in this century. It is often the dividing line between job security and years of struggle.

Failing to make higher education funding a state priority doesn’t just harm students, it saps our state’s economic strength. Thousands of medical and engineering jobs in Washington are unfilled – today – because our workforce doesn’t have the necessary education.

I’ve offered a solution: Amend Article IX of Washington’s Constitution, which makes providing for basic education the state’s “paramount duty,” so that higher education becomes the next-highest duty of the state. This plan would also establish a dedicated funding source for higher education, committing 1.75 cents of every retail sales-tax dollar collected to higher education. This would restore a 50-50 split between state funding and tuition at four-year universities.

If legislators don’t like my proposal, I encourage them to offer their own; the more ideas, the better. But doing nothing is not an option. If we fail to act in a substantial way, a college education will become a financial fantasy for thousands of kids from working-class families across Washington; forever out of reach thanks to the atrophy of broader state support.

I urge students, administrators and families to recognize the great achievement we made this year, but don’t become complacent. Demand better from your elected officials. If you do not hold their feet to the flames, they will never make higher education the priority it deserves to be.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner represents the 6th Legislative District and is the vice chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee.


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