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Lawmakers: Get radical about funding higher ed

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Jan. 4, 2011 at 7:52 pm |
January 4, 2011 5:18 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

There’s so much talk in Olympia right now about de-funding public colleges, it’s good to see some serious people figuring out how to fund them.

The governor’s higher education funding task force – a group of business and higher ed leaders that’s been wrestling with the issue since July – came out with some weighty recommendations Wednesday. State lawmakers ought to study them closely and act on them by the time they go home in a few months.

Yes, the budget distress will necessarily dominate the session; that’s exactly why Washington’s college system needs urgent attention, too.

The state’s traditional approach to subsidizing college opportunity is broken and getting more broken. Neither taxpayers nor lawmakers have been willing to finance college for today’s students the way the World War II generation financed college for the Baby Boomers.

We could gripe about that at greater length, but it’s a political reality. The fiscal emergency is now compounding the tendency to the point that Gov. Chris Gregoire is proposing to ratchet down funding for the system by 4.2 percent over the next biennium.

The task force’s overall message is: Find another way. For example, it recommends linking the schools’ tuition-setting authority to levels of funding from the Legislature. Funding goes down, college administrations have more power to raise tuition. And vice versa.

One virtue of the linkage is accountability for the Legislature. Right now lawmakers tightly cap tuition while scrimping on appropriations, pretending that they’re doing students a favor while indirectly hollowing out programs, course offerings, prerequisites, etc. The system’s been headed the way of the old Soviet markets: Everything cheap, just nothing to buy.

Link tuition to subsidies, and lawmakers share clear responsibility for what happens on the ground.

As tuition rises, financial aid must rise, too, to avoid freezing out the middle- and low-income students the public universities and technical colleges were created for. The task force proposes to create a privately funded $1 billion endowment to help assist such students – a good idea so long as it doesn’t give lawmakers a pretext for walking away from financial aid.

Last year’s Legislature rejected a higher-tuition/higher-aid bill. With another hurricane about to hit higher education in Washington, it would be shameless to cling to the failed status quo.

The task force proposes accountability for the schools, too, including metrics to show how successfully and quickly they move students to meaningful degrees. Quickly includes awarding three-year bachelor’s degrees, giving credit for learning already accomplished, streamlining credit transfers and the like.

Lawmakers may have good ideas of their own; what they can’t do is sit back and let degree opportunities keep shrinking on their watch.

Crises call for radical thinking. The Legislature must get radical about saving public higher education in Washington.

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