I 100% Agree With the Seattle Times on Higher Ed

Since last summer, Prosperity Partnership has been hard at work to ensure action by the 2011 legislature on higher education. We’ve talked about all the reasons why it’s so vital to our economy and to our citizens, but at the end of the day it comes down to this: Washington needs well-educated people to meet the demands of the new economy, and an accessible, affordable and accountable public higher education system allows the people of the state to compete for good jobs and allows companies to find qualified employees.

Which is why we’re so pleased that, yesterday, the Legislature passed and the Governor agreed to sign HB 1795, which enacts a majority of the recommendations of the Governor’s Higher Education Funding Task Force. In the face of huge budget cuts to our public higher education system , this legislation grants our higher education institutions the flexibility to set tuition at rates that balance affordability with access, increase financial aid for low- and middle-income students, and tie state funding to clear, measurable outcomes.

And yet, in the face of achieving our legislative goals for this session, it can be hard to scream, “Hurray, we can raise tuition!” Even with more financial aid and greater accountability, a lot more folks are going to pay more for college…which might mean much more debt upon graduation. I hate to use the term “necessary evil,” but in a time that state revenues are at historic lows and with apparently no appetite for revenue increases, this was clearly the best option to ensure access to the college degrees that we need to compete in the 21st century economy.

Which is why I was so happy to read the Seattle Times editorial this morning. I think this is a clear and concise summary of why this truly is a victory for our state, our economy and, yes, our students. It may violate all the rules of blogdom, but I’m going to quote it in full here:

FEW among us like the idea of significant hikes in college tuition. But with state support declining, the state’s four-year colleges and universities have no other choice if they wish to maintain quality.

The state would be very shortsighted if it allowed these schools to decline and produce an inferior education for the next generation of Washington’s students.

The state House and Senate reached an agreement that takes lawmakers out of the business of setting tuition for four years.

The deal, led by state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, and Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, was approved by the House in a strong bipartisan vote. Tuesday, the Senate wisely followed suit — also in bipartisan fashion.

Washington is one of the few states in the country where the Legislature sets tuition. The new plan allows the governing board for each school to set rates beginning with the fall 2011 class.

Our state colleges and universities are a good deal. At $8,701 a year for in-state, undergraduate tuition and fees, the University of Washington, for example, is a bargain compared with peer institutions.

One of the most appealing parts of the legislation is its recognition that in-state students are a priority. While the UW gains a free hand in tuition setting, the bill requires the school to keep in-state freshman admissions to last year’s level. This is significant because it overrides a more recent decision to expand freshmen out-of-state admissions and shrink in-state admits. State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, was right to help push this through.

Obviously, students benefit enormously from studying with classmates from all over the world, but this reasonable compromise makes looming tuition hikes more palatable.

The bill works well in another way: It directly assists middle-class families that cannot afford ongoing jumps in tuition. Student aid, appropriately, will be available on a sliding scale to students whose families earn up to 125 percent or less of state median family income — about $97,000 annually for a family of four.

Few students will rejoice at the idea of higher tuition. But our institutions of higher learning need money to maintain quality. Call this a necessary evil at a difficult time.

There’s much more work to be done to ensure the long-term sustainability of our state’s higher education system. In many ways, this is just a short term fix, and we’re going to need to have a tough conversation about dedicated funding sources, state funding minimums and/or increasing flexibility in pricing. But, for now, we should feel good that we’ve made the hard choices to keep one of our most important assets strong.

Congratulations to everyone who participated in the Prosperity Partnership’s efforts and in the broader conversation over the last year who has helped us reach this important milestone!

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