March 19, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 12

News

A college degree is less accessible than ever, and a study says state lawmakers are to blame

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

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Over the last two decades, Washington has gone from being one of the most affordable states in which to get a college education to one of the least affordable, a new study has found.

Elected officials are to blame for the change, according to a University of Pennsylvania study on higher education policies in five states.

“It’s not just one governor or one legislative session,” said Joni Finney, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Research on Higher Education and lead author on the study. “It’s overall neglect of higher education policy over time.”

Only one state in the nation — Florida — spends less per student on higher education, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council, a government body created in 2012 to improve higher education outcomes in the state.

The Institute for Research in Higher Education examined five states — Washington, Illinois, Maryland, Texas and Georgia — that exemplified failure in higher education. All generally failed to use fiscal resources strategically, align opportunities with student needs or ease transitions between schools.

The researchers recommend that states make higher education more accessible to low-income students and people of color, develop a long-term plan for higher education and create clear pathways to certificates and degrees.

In Washington, lawmakers trimming budgets allowed state universities to charge ever-increasing rates of tuition to make up for the shortfall. In 1994, the University of Washington charged $2,907 a year for full-time tuition.

Today’s students pay $12,397, more than double, even when accounting for inflation.

Students now shoulder a greater portion of the cost of education. About 10 years ago, the state covered roughly 65 percent of school tuition and students paid 35 percent. The ratio has almost entirely flipped: The state now covers 40 percent, and students pay 60 percent.

Gene Sharratt, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, agreed with the study’s findings, but she said Washington is improving.

“The leadership vacuum is closing quickly,” he said.

He pointed to Washington’s Real Hope Act, which extends state financial aid benefits to undocumented immigrants.

Tuition has also stabilized. University of Washington’s base tuition did not increase in 2013.

“That was the first time since 1986 that there hasn’t been some rise in tuition,” Sharratt said.

The Washington Student Achievement Council is in the process of creating a 10-year plan to improve student achievement.

Currently 89 percent of people age 25 to 44 have a high school or equivalent diploma. By 2023, the council wants that to be 100 percent. That same year, the council wants 70 percent of adults to have a post-high school degree or certificate. The current rate is 50 percent.

The council will release its plan on how to achieve those goals in December.

Getting the money to fund the plan is going to take a lot of work, Sharratt said.

Colleges will have to compete for dollars while the Washington state legislature is under a state Supreme Court ruling to increase funding for secondary education.

And Washington voters have been reluctant to agree to additional taxes, he said.

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