There’s bad news for would-be college students, then good news, then more bad news. Stick with us.
The bad – for most Washington students – is the new round of steep tuition increases headed their way. Earlier this month, Washington State University approved its second consecutive 16 percent increase, which will raise the price of next year’s schooling by $1,500.
The University of Washington also looks headed for a 16 percent increase; the UW and WSU will each cost something north of $11,000 in 2012-2013. Tuition will be lower at other public universities and lower still at community and technical colleges, but it has been rising fast around the state.
Students of limited means, should not be scared off by sticker shock, however; herein lies the good news. A surprising amount of money is available to help them earn academic or technical degrees.
According to the state Higher Education Coordinating Board, $2.4 billion worth of financial aid was disbursed to students last year. Most comes from the federal government in the form of Pell grants and student loans. Much comes from the state, especially through the need grant program.
The colleges themselves offer assistance to needy students. The UW and WSU, for example, both pledge to cover any tuition lower-income students might still owe after federal and state assistance. Although their tuitions have been rising sharply, the idea is to simultaneously increase financial aid so that the needy are held harmless.
The message: Don’t get fazed by the retail price. Wholesale and below-wholesale deals are out there.
Families without a tradition of higher education especially need to understand that. Without knowing the ins and outs of the system, it’s too easy to look at those tuitions and assume that a degree or technical certificate is simply out of reach. Yet an advanced, high-quality education remains the surest path to a family-wage job. Through the course of a lifetime, an appropriate degree will pay for itself many times over.
But there’s trouble in the world of college opportunity.
To qualify for a need grant, a student’s household income must be less than 70 percent of median annual income in this state. This year, that translates into $57,000 a year for a family of four.
The Legislature has been earmarking more funding to need grants, but it has also been earmarking much less to colleges. Resulting tuition increases have been eating up much of the assistance. At the same time, economic distress has been driving growing numbers of people into technical and academic degree programs.
As a result, roughly 30,000 would-be students eligible for need grants can’t get them for lack for state funding. Middle-income students who don’t qualify for any kind of grants are also getting squeezed by higher tuitions.
With state revenue as tight as it is, there’s no obvious remedy for the trend. But any solution must begin with broad public understanding of the value of higher education, which both expands individual opportunity and provides the trained work force companies need to grow and create more jobs.
It costs money, but everyone ultimately wins. The sooner Washington can get back to expanding college opportunity, the better.