As the Washington legislative session wrapped up, our legislators finally took at least one important step in the right direction. Or rather, they stopped going in the wrong direction.
It’s about time. Tuition and fees at the University of Washington are $13,000 — close to a quarter of the pre-tax income of the typical middle class family in this state. It’s not much better at Western Washington University, with tuition and fees at $8,500. At Everett Community College the state has pushed tuition and fees up to $4,000.
In 1974, the Council on Higher Education declared that “access to higher education, regardless of economic means, is a basic commitment of the State of Washington … student charges should be kept as low as possible consistent with the need to maintain a quality program of public higher education.”
The Legislature stuck to that promise for over a decade. Community college tuition and fees in 1981 were $769 in today’s dollars. UW tuition and fees were $1,726. Western tuition and fees were $1,553. Since then, community college tuition has shot up over 400 percent and UW’s has multiplied six-fold.
How did this happen? A large part of the problem is as our state has gotten richer, a disproportionate amount of the income has gone to the wealthy. And without an income tax, that money can’t be touched for higher education. At the same time, consumer purchases have shifted from goods, for which we pay sales tax, to services, which are exempt from the sales tax. So revenue for public services, like higher education, is steadily shrinking.
Colleges and universities make up the difference by raising tuition. At the UW, tuition was about $5,000 in 2000, $6,000 in 2005, $8,000 in 2010, $10,000 in 2011 — and now it is $13,000. I bet your family income did not increase by two and a half times in the 21st century!
So for next year, at least, the Legislature called a halt to this squeezing of the middle class. Now it’s time to lower tuition and make it possible for the vast majority of high school graduates to go to community college and four-year universities.
Too big a task? That’s what the Oregon Legislature has begun to do. They passed a bill to study and implement the Pay It Forward concept for financing higher education.
Students would attend college with no tuition. After graduation, they would contribute a very small percentage of their income to a higher education trust fund. Community college graduates would contribute 1.5 percent and university graduates would contribute 3 percent — all for 20 years.
Imagine — no tuition and a self-sustaining system creating debt-free access to higher education. All of a sudden we demolish the financial and psychological barriers to higher education and recognize it as a public service not just for me or you, but for the vast majority of Washington residents. Now that is a concept.
Having put one foot forward, the Washington Legislature took at least one step backward at the end of the not-so-special session. When advocates for a new program talk to a legislator, the first question he or she asks is, “what is the fiscal note” — that is, what is the cost to the state? But not this time.
Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, sponsored (and the Legislature approved) a bill that will let various businesses off the hook from paying taxes at a cost of about $15 million in lost revenue. Well, that’s just an estimate, actually, there was no fiscal note when the bill passed. We do know that legislators gave Russell Investments, an investment company for the wealthy with $170 billion in assets, a juicy tax break. And they added in tax breaks for clay pigeons used for target shooting, Darigold, large privately owned aircraft, and more.
That $15 million could have provided full tuition for 3,750 students in our community colleges. Instead, Senator Hill and the Legislature favored Russell Investments over higher education for Washington residents.
Choices like this mean our Legislature will have to start raising tuition over and over again. They will have given themselves — and us — no choice. Next year, let’s hope they begin thinking about how to fund higher education, not high finance. They can do better and we can do better for our children and the generations to come.
Originally published at the Everett Herald