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Vestal: Improving job prospects through school has hefty price

Sara Kerbs-Ridenour takes a break from working at the Eastern Washington University student government office Friday.  (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)
Sara Kerbs-Ridenour takes a break from working at the Eastern Washington University student government office Friday. (Christopher Anderson / The Spokesman-Review)

Sara Kerbs-Ridenour is a schoolteacher working on a master’s degree in special ed.

She’s 24, with three years of experience in the classroom. A Spokane native, she returned to Eastern Washington University for her graduate degree after teaching in Oregon. Since she’s lost her in-state residency, at least for now, she’s facing a tuition bill of some $6,500 per quarter – more than double the in-state rate.

By the time she graduates, her debt from her undergraduate and graduate educations is likely to exceed $60,000.

“That’s something that permanently affects your adult life,” Kerbs-Ridenour said. “It’s either don’t be a qualified professional and don’t have student loans, or be in the professional world and be stuck with these for half your life.”

Our system of higher education in Washington is full of cognitive dissonance: We want more kids to go to school, but we’re raising tuition at usurious rates. We want to encourage “underserved” populations to get degrees, but our financial aid programs don’t cover everyone who qualifies. The business community seems to expect colleges to produce its workers, fully formed, while we shift the costs more and more onto those workers.

Our primary response as a society has been sadly typical: Borrow, borrow, borrow, kids. Tomorrow never comes.

The recession is kicking the system in the teeth, of course. But even before that, our leaders have been paying lip service to the idea that we need to produce more college graduates if we want Washington kids to have a crack at the best jobs here – all while providing less and less support for college.

And now, with another horrible state budget coming up, it looks like more of the same.

Washington State University President Elson Floyd – who has led the university’s budget-slashing efforts with a minimum of sky-is-falling histrionics – says these cuts threaten to undercut the entire system of college education.

“Four-year quality baccalaureate education is the foundation of moderate, Western, civilized society,” Floyd said in a statement about the cuts in September. “Access is meaningless without quality. Washington has always provided quality public higher education. It remains to be seen if this tradition can continue.”

Floyd has done some smart, symbolic things – such as refusing to take a pay raise – and some smart, substantive things – such as cutting administrative positions. But the big changes won’t come from eliminating three vice presidents, as appealing as that sounds to those who imagine this is a simple case of forking out big chunks of fat. Cutting entire colleges, eliminating majors, laying off staff, limiting and worsening the options for students – these are the ways you save tens of millions of dollars.

That, plus raising tuition – hikes of 30 percent over two years. Meanwhile, the number of needy students who can’t get state financial aid is growing. The latest estimate is that some 25,000 students who will qualify for the State Need Grant this year won’t actually get one.

At Spokane Community College, where enrollments have surged, financial aid director Tammy Zibell says she’s seen more applications for aid than in any year of her 16-year career. And State Need Grant money is already scarce this year, she said in a recent interview.

“We’re really low on that,” she said. “I don’t actually at this point know if I’ll have any left after fall quarter – or maybe winter.”

It’s hard to see how this story will end. Will we continue raising tuition, cutting services and handing students loan applications? Should we just hang signs on campuses: “Come rich or leave poor”?

A task force, formed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, is trying to find alternatives. The panel of business and education leaders has met several times and is charged with developing proposals for the 2011 legislative session.

While it’s too soon to say what might be proposed, the ideas under consideration are wide-ranging – including the creation of three-year degrees, a cap on the number of credits the state will support for students, basing funding for each college on “performance metrics,” streamlining administrative functions across campuses, and cutting the cost of core classes by using “technology-related course transformation methods.”

I always wonder how you stick “Moby-Dick” into a metric, and I feel pretty committed to the idea that a college student ought to wrestle with “Moby-Dick.” Will the transformations wrought by technology – read: less face time with instructors – be good for students? Will students benefit when their institution with a shoddy metric score takes a funding hit from the Legislature?

Hard to say – and it’s not like I have any brilliant ideas for fixing things. It’s going to be interesting to see what emerges, and how it might affect the next generation of students like Kerbs-Ridenour. For now, these young people – at least the ones who aren’t rich – are facing a Hobson’s choice: Pursue a professional life with a lot of debt. Or don’t.

“It’s obviously a problem – the massive cost of it,” Kerbs-Ridenour said. “And Eastern is one of the cheapest schools.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at or (509) 459-5431.
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