Paying for Public Colleges

Washington, like several other states, is apparently now considering allowing its state universities to hike tuition in response to declining money from its state legislature. According to an article by Katherine Long in the Seattle Times:

If the Legislature won’t cough up more money to grow the state’s four-year colleges and universities, the schools should have the power to raise tuition significantly to cover the cost, a state task force recommends. The tuition-setting power would be part of a complicated formula that would let tuition rise or fall depending on the level of state higher-education funding.

Both [state task-force leader Brad] Smith and [Washington Governor Christine] Gregoire said the task force wanted to link tuition increases to state funding cuts because it could put political pressure on the Legislature to be more generous toward higher education.

That’s an interesting idea, because something like that has never happened before. What actually happens when state legislatures give less money to state colleges is that the colleges simply raise tuition. The legislatures then conclude that the schools do just fine without their money, so they’ll give schools even less in future years.

All that’s fine, because such manipulations allow state colleges to continue their existence, but they make public colleges more expensive, a lot more expensive. This is true despite Washington’s plan to “blunt the impact on lower- and middle-income families by creating a private financial-aid endowment.”

The reason public colleges exist is to provide low cost higher education to the residents of the state. If the solution to keep that reality alive is a private fund, why not create a bigger fund to let everyone in the state go to college cheaply, say by raising taxes a little?

It’s not just poor people who have the right to a low-cost public education. That’s why we have public colleges, so that higher education is cheaply available to everyone in the state.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer