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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Higher ed, lower affordability

Nineteen months ago, Washington’s higher education officials did what higher education officials do.

They looked at a problem and wrote a report.

The problem, then and now, is tiresomely familiar. Tuition goes up, state funding goes down, and all our empty talk about improving access to college makes us look sillier every year.

What to do? The Tuition Policy Report of the Higher Education Coordinating Board made some recommendations. Among them: Reject the “high tuition/high aid” model, which some states were trying; and keep control of tuition at the state level.

High tuition/high aid basically calls for charging very high tuition to those who can afford it and making sure there’s a lot of financial aid available.

“This model is attractive on paper, but data show it is not successful in promoting access for under-served populations and that it adversely impacts middle-income families,” according to the report. “Increased financial aid proposed by this approach does not counter the sticker shock that hits a potential first-generation scholar, nor does it assure the required increases in financial aid. ‘High tuition, high financial aid’ models result in lower state support and higher levels of student debt.”

In other words, high tuition/high aid hurts middle-class and poor students.

I wonder what our current model – high tuition/low aid – will do for those kids?

Following years of brutal budget cuts, the Washington Legislature gave universities the power to set their own tuition, which promptly rose faster than the price of downtown parking during Hoopfest.

Washington State raised tuition by 16 percent heading into next academic year. That means that tuition in Pullman has gone up 57 percent in the last five years – about 10 times the inflation rate.

Eastern hiked tuition by 11 percent – 40 percent over five years.

And UW’s tuition bills are rising by 20 percent – a five-year increase of 66 percent.

Financial aid spending has been less meteoric. According to Inside Higher Ed, Washington raised its financial aid spending by 6 percent last academic year. Idaho cut aid that year by almost 10 percent. And in the most recent legislative session, Washington lawmakers again managed to find a little extra money for financial aid.

Still, many more students qualify for help than receive it. In 2007, fewer than 2,000 Washington students who qualified for the State Need Grant – a program that goes a long way toward paying for college for low-income students – didn’t receive one. That number is expected to reach 30,000 this year, about 30 percent of those who qualify.

Of course, there are other sources of aid – loans are the big growth area. Most kids who do qualify for grants or scholarships get far less than is needed to pay the bills. A useful new Department of Education website, the College Affordability and Transparency Center ( catc/), provides a wealth of information about college costs. Included is an estimate of any college’s “net price” – the annual cost of tuition, fees, room and board and other expenses, minus the average amount of non-loan financial aid.

At Eastern, this figure was calculated at more than $10,000 for 2008-’09. That’s more than half the estimated total cost of a year of education. That means a high school kid in Spokane who wants to enroll in the area’s most affordable public four-year school needs to come up with somewhere around $50,000 – depending on how tuition and financial aid change in the years to come – beyond scholarships and grants.

Or just stay home and study “Gilligan’s Island,” which had a lesson to teach about class and college in America. As the writer Misha Glouberman put it: “ … it wasn’t the Professor who went to Harvard, it was Mr. Howell, the rich man.”

States have been abdicating their responsibility to help pay for colleges for years now, dumping a growing share of the burden on students and families. It’s easy to demonize universities, but they’ve absorbed a lot of cuts in the past few budgets, and there’s something more going on. The Legislature and governor quailed in the face of a deep challenge and passed the political difficulties down the line.

Maybe everyone’s OK with this. Though it’s gotten much worse in the last couple of years, this is basically the status quo: Tuition races ahead of financial aid again. Good luck, kids.

It’s hard to imagine that this won’t devolve into an ever-more-clear-cut system of class triage. We’ll have really good colleges for really rich kids and a few super-extraordinary poor ones. We’ll have decent colleges and 30-year loans for middle-class kids. Everyone else will get bromides about personal responsibility and a shove onto an ever-narrowing path filled with obstacles, until a salesman from Strip-Mall U. calls with an offer to take out $300,000 in federally guaranteed student loans for a convenient online degree and a lifetime of indentured servitude.

Call it the American Dream, Subsection B.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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