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The ugly reality of college access in Washington

Post by Kim Bradford on June 7, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
June 7, 2011 5:37 pm

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

It could have been worse: That’s about as good as the news gets for students struggling with how they’ll pay their tuition bills at the state’s colleges and universities this fall.

State lawmakers, faced with having to slash $500 million from higher education this year to save other state programs, authorized double-digit tuition increases in each of the next two years to help backfill the loss.

Under a bill signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire on Monday, the state’s four-year schools will have even greater leeway to raise their prices.

Boeing and Microsoft representatives were on hand at Monday’s bill signing with an attempt to cushion the blow. The companies are giving $25 million each to a new fund that will provide scholarships for students majoring in high-demand fields.

A $50 million pledge is obviously something to cheer, especially one that is targeted at expanding the available workforce in technology, health care and engineering – areas where pay is good, companies are looking to hire and entrepreneurial opportunities encourage further job creation.

But for some perspective on the state of higher education in Washington, consider this: The $1,000 awards that the Washington Opportunity Scholarship will begin handing out in December won’t cover even this year’s expected tuition increase at the University of Washington.

The situation is bleaker still for students pursuing a degree in, say, history or business or education.

The Legislature tried to raise financial aid commensurate with tuition, approving a 32 percent increase in State Need Grant funding during a year when drastic cuts were the order of the day.

The additional money should allow the state to help cover tuition hikes for the same 70,000 students it helped last year. What it won’t do is allow any more students to begin receiving aid. The unmet need is huge – approximately 22,000 students who qualified for the need grants didn’t receive them last year.

What’s more, as The Seattle Times reported this week, several other student-aid programs lost all or part of their funding.

Work study? Cut by two-thirds. A program that once provided high-school seniors scoring in the top 1 percent of their class with scholarships? Those kids will now get only the state’s congratulations.

The erosion in higher education affordability may be mitigated by a provision in the legislation allowing universities to go beyond the Legislature’s tuition rates that requires those schools to set aside some of the increase for financial aid.

But there is little doubt that college access in this state has been diminished by the state’s budget crisis, especially for middle-class families and students not suited for fields in which employers can help underwrite their education.

The Legislature needs to keep those Washingtonians in mind as state government recovers from the recession.

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