Lawmakers will rightly focus this session on shielding Washington’s public schools from the worst gales of the fiscal hurricane howling through the state.
But education doesn’t end with the 12th grade. The most lavishly funded K-12 system can’t guarantee students a future if there’s no place for them to go once they graduate from high school. The 21st century’s tech-intensive economy demands workers with technical, associate and bachelor’s degrees – and punishes job-seekers who don’t have them.
Yet Washington’s higher education system has long suffered from lack of enthusiasm in the Legislature, and it stands to suffer disproportionately again this year as lawmakers stitch together the $1.4 billion wound in what was already a ragged and bloody state budget.
A new critique of the system from the University of Pennsylvania should give pause to anyone inclined to view cuts to public colleges as the path of least resistance in a hard budget year.
Washington’s four-year colleges are already half-crippled, concluded the experts from the university’s Institute for Research on Higher Education.
Our universities do one thing very well: get their incoming students all the way to degrees. Look beyond the ranks of already-enrolled students, though, and the picture isn’t so pretty.
Washington mostly does a mediocre-to-poor job of providing college opportunity to its youth, forcing employers to recruit from other states to fill many of their best-paid jobs.
The researchers found that this state’s high school graduation rate is the 16th lowest in the nation, and that a quarter of all 18- to 24-year-olds lack high school diplomas.
The state is well below average in granting bachelor’s degrees – i.e., granting all the opportunities that lead to those degrees. It has been raising tuition dramatically: by roughly 40 percent at two-year and four-year schools between 1999 and 2009 – a period when median income fell by 1.9 percent.
Since 2009, the Legislature has further slashed its support for public colleges and presided over big additional tuition increases.
Tuition increases are not necessarily a bad idea; some families can afford them, and the system shouldn’t be subsidizing the wealthy.
To preserve fair opportunity, though, the Legislature must proportionately increase financial aid to students of modest income. Financial aid is likely to wind up in the cross-hairs of budget-writers this session – Gov. Chris Gregoire felt compelled to reduce it sharply in the no-new-taxes budget she proposed late last year. This is one of the fundamentals worth going to the ballot for if there’s no way to maintain access to college without new tax revenues.
Hunting for the underlying causes of the system’s weaknesses, the researchers accurately nailed the chief culprit: the state’s political leadership. Collectively, our governors and lawmakers have not cared deeply enough or fought hard enough for Washington’s would-be college students. This legislative session is the time to end that sorry tradition.