Dramatic cost shift in higher education

Two weeks ago my friend, Danny Westneat, of the Seattle Times wrote an important and much-discussed column about the dramatic cost shift in higher education in this state.  Westneat is right when he says that the state has suddenly slashed support for higher education, and thus shifted the paradigm so that tuition now pays 70% of the costs of going to college.  He’s right when he uses the word “shame” to describe a policy that has resulted in massive tuition increases which will inevitably price some deserving students out of the opportunity to get a college education.

It’s when he gets down to assigning blame that Westneat loses me:

How we milked the public university system in this state and then starved it will go down as the great badge of shame of my generation and the one before mine, the baby boomers. Affordable college made us. Once made, we wouldn’t pay even a two-cent per can soda-pop tax to give that same gift to anybody else

“We?”  Who’s we?  The decision to cut state support for higher ed and massively increase tuition wasn’t made by some faceless “we,” it was made by Governor Chris Gregoire and the Democrats who controlled the House and Senate and passed the state budgets in 2009 and 2011 that made this policy change.

As recently as the 2007-09 budget, times were good.  Revenue and state spending rose nearly 30%.  Higher education got an $800 million increase in that budget, and comprised 11% of the state’s general fund spending.  K-12 schools also got more money.  But the big winner was human services, where spending increased a third; just over $3 billion in new spending.  Human services spending rose to 38% of the general fund budget. http://leap.leg.wa.gov/leap/budget/index_lbns.asp

Then things got bad.  State revenues dropped. In the 2009-11 budget, the legislature cut $500 million from higher education and the double digit tuition increases began.

But the big shift came in 2011-13.  Despite anemic revenue growth, the Governor, and the Democrats in the legislature, found money to increase spending on human services and K-12 education, but they chose to cut another $600 million from higher ed, dropping higher education to 8% of the general fund budget.  Tuition went even higher.  The state of Washington spent $300 million less on higher ed in the 2011-13 budget than we did in the 2005-07 budget, and students and families have borne the burden of that decision.

Yes, the voters repealed new taxes on soda pop, bottled water, candy, and some processed foods in 2010, but those taxes weren’t earmarked to higher education, and even if they were, the $217 million they would have generated would barely have restored 1/3 of the cut made to higher education in the 2011-13 budget alone.

“We” didn’t choose to slash spending on higher ed and shift the cost to students and families, while increasing spending in other areas of state government.   Gov. Gregoire and the legislature did that.

higheedforallThis year, Republicans and Democrats made a different choice.  They worked together to pass a budget that increases funding to higher education and freezes tuition for one year.  They also increased funding to K-12, and chose to keep spending in the rest of state government flat.  Hopefully this is the beginning of a trend.  The state should dedicate itself to a policy of gradually restoring the balance in higher ed so that tuition accounts for no more than 50% of the cost of a college education.

Public policy doesn’t make itself.  Public policy is formed through the choices made by those elected to represent us.  And who we choose makes all the difference.

— Chris Vance

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.