Our leaders are great at selling the value of higher education and its importance to the overall health of national, state and local economies, but they fail in keeping the doors of public institutions propped open to qualified students. In fact, the rhetoric seems to rise in inverse proportion to the investment.
In 1987, Washington state covered 80 percent of an in-state student’s costs at its public colleges and universities. Recent projections indicate that this could drop to 40 percent by 2013. In the past 18 months, Washington State University has been hit with a 30 percent funding cut and many classes and majors have been eliminated. The long slide in state support corresponds with a steady rise in outstanding loans. A typical WSU graduate is handed a diploma and about $20,000 in debt, thanks to a near doubling of tuition in the past decade.
To make matters worse, there is the news that one of the state’s solutions to this college access problem needs to be limited for future participants.
The Guaranteed Education Tuition program was begun in 1998 and it allows participants to prepay for college at today’s prices for future use. The idea was that the state would receive money upfront to invest and these investments would earn enough to offset tuition increases. However, GET investments have lagged tuition hikes, so the state needs to either pare the program for new enrollees or face backfilling the accounts with scarce public dollars. These necessary legislative changes will mean that more costs will be shifted to students and their families.
Current and prospective students and their families worry that this crazy train of costs will derail their dreams, but this ought to concern everyone. There is little doubt that the need for a college education has increased. The statistics for how college graduates fare over their lifetimes are familiar. The state (and the nation) would benefit from producing more college graduates in a competitive global environment.
But there comes a point where the upfront costs are so exorbitant that it frustrates even the most resourceful student. Already, they are taking on more jobs (if they can find them in this economy) and more debt. Many are heading off to community colleges for two years, before attending four-year institutions. Still others are earning college credits while in high school.
The traditional college experience has succumbed to a variety of survival strategies. That’s not all bad, but it has its limits.
Some small steps have been taken in response. Schools are pursuing ways to ensure that students are actually making progress toward a degree, rather than languishing at taxpayer expense. They’re also doing a better job of matching financial aid to qualified students. Starting this fall, a new federal law will require public institutions to place calculators on their websites so that prospective students can plug in their economic status to see what the true cost will be.
However, none of that is a substitute for increasing public investment in higher education. Until our leaders can find a way to walk that talk, the problem will grow increasingly dire.
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