An Immediate Problem and a Fundamental Crisis

Faced with a sputtering economy, and reductions in state support, the governing board at Eastern Washington University voted to hike tuition. It might be the best option but it’s a really troublesome solution, writes EWU board member Neil McReynolds in an opinion piece for the Seattle Times:

Eastern’s governing board approved a tuition rate increase of 11 percent, the lowest increase of any of Washington’s four-year public universities this year. What made this vote especially difficult is that half of EWU’s students are the first in their family to attend college, and 20 percent of the student body comes from underrepresented backgrounds.

But we are at a crossroads. At Eastern we have already cut administrative staff, eliminated positions, increased class sizes, consolidated the colleges within the university from six to four and cut low-priority programs and degrees.

This highlights a problem going on in many states across the union. If a public college needs money, and the state won’t pay up, a conventional way to meet costs is to just raise tuition.

Students and their families will continue to pay that tuition especially if, as in this case, all the other public colleges raise tuition too. But it doesn’t work in the long run; members of the board, even if they’re not fixing the problem, understand that tuition hikes aren’t entirely sustainable.

The state currently devotes a mere 3 percent of the state budget to higher education. So, what to do? Well according to McReynolds:

It’s a question of priorities. Why has higher education had a declining share of the state budget? Is higher education a high priority for this state? Does our state leadership really believe that the key to our future is a well-educated work force?

As we head into a new election cycle, these are questions all of us should be asking candidates if we really want to see higher education become a priority in this state again.

Ultimately this probably makes sense. Realistically, however, it’s highly unlikely there will be any serious candidates running for state offices on a platform of increasing Washington State’s taxes in order to bring down the cost of tuition at its public colleges. But that’s what needs to happen in order to really bring the cost of college down to students, isn’t it?

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