Here’s the Governor’s Higher Education Funding Task Force Proposal. Now What?

There’s been a lot of press and a lot of reaction (both positive & negative) to the press conference this past Monday at which the Governor’s Higher Education Funding Task Force presented their recommendations. Your trusty Prosperity Blog has been following this story since the summer, and – while this blog is not for policy-advocacy, per se – I do think that it’s important to clarify a few things that initial reactions to the proposal are getting wrong:

The main argument I’m hearing against the Task Force proposal is that it gives “unlimited tuition-raising authority to universities,” with all of the negative externalities that brings (greater burden on lower- and middle-class families, etc.) But technically, that is not what the Task Force is recommending. Instead, the Task Force proposal suggests the creation of a relationship between state funding and tuition, such that – in combination – they reach a sustainable level of overall support for higher education. If state funding goes up, tuition goes down. If state funding goes down, only then do universities have the option of raising tuition to compensate and only to the level of the corresponding cuts. A cynical lobbyist might point out that, “if the legislature doesn’t want tuition to go up, they still have that control: all they have to do is not cut state funding.”

The logic of the formal state funding-tuition linkage is pretty straightforward: if it costs x amount of money to have a successful higher education system, and if the resources for higher education are a+b, then you need to raise a when b decreases to keep the equation balanced (there’s a little STEM education for you right there). Would most people rather state funding pay for 100% of higher education and access be free to all qualified students (like in many places in Europe)? Absolutely! Are people willing to pay the taxes necessary to fund such a system? Clearly not! And so, at least in the short-term and until the economy recovers, tuition is the only way to balance what is inevitably going to be additional cuts in state support for higher education.

By the way, as this chart shows, as long as state funding is above the current baseline, tuition is capped at 60% of peers. That means that UW and WSU tuition could only go as high as $9,800 (currently $7,600) and the other four four-years could only go to $7,514 (from $5,500). Now, for folks with limited incomes (all of us), a couple thousand a year isn’t nothing, but the Task Force proposal also addresses increased student aid (through a privately raised endowment). And a couple thousand a year might be preferable to a lot of people vs. the other option: no slots available for them at all, as the universities cut class sizes or fill those slots with out-of-state students.

Now, the other argument against tuition increases that I’ve heard is that there’s ways to provide higher education cheaper. Some people are saying this in the old “cut all the waste and inefficiency” way, but others are talking more about innovation in delivery (online learning, more transfer credits earned during high school or community college) that could make it cheaper and easier to deliver the same services. Some people are even talking about variable pricing, such that different majors cost different tuition or paying out-of-state tuition for fifth and/or sixth years of college.

Increased accountability, performance and efficiency are an essential part of the discussion, which is why they’re included as part of the Task Force proposal as well. But the implications of defunding the universities now (state budget cuts and no tuition increases) until we find ever dollar saved has a real cost to those Washington state students who won’t get the education they need to get the jobs that our economy is producing.

Now what? Well, the Prosperity Partnership is going to be one of the strong voices in Olympia during this current legislative session advocating on behalf of the importance of higher education to our state, to our residents and to the economy. We’re going to use the Task Force proposal as an important framework for having the discussion about the long-term future of our state’s higher education system, while simultaneously keeping focused on ensuring strong investment in the upcoming biennial budget. If you’re interested in joining us, visit the website to learn more.

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