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Shining light on higher ed accessibility

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By John Burbank
Sometimes it just makes sense to sit back, look around, and be thankful we live in the state of Washington. The Cascades and the Olympics frame the sky, the air is clear, cool and invigorating, and the days are long and gentle. Last week I drove across the state. The I-90 corridor was brilliant with trees leafing out in their new summer green, Snoqualmie Pass was sparkling with snow patches, the run down to the Columbia River framed by otherworldly-looking and beautiful wind turbines with Mount Rainier in the rearview mirror, the grain and potato fields of the Columbia Basin green and growing, and the pioneer ponderosa pines showing up about 15 miles from Cheney, with Mount Spokane looming in the background. Coming home it was all in reverse, again breathtakingly beautiful, driving down across the Columbia at sunset, and coming on home to Seattle.
Tomorrow is the summer solstice -- 17 hours of light. Every day after tomorrow we lose a little bit, and a little bit more, and suddenly we find ourselves in the fall, and then in the dark, wet, grey, and weary winter of Puget Sound. So let's celebrate summertime, while we can!
You might decide to drive up to Mount Baker and go for a hike. If you do, you won't be detoured by the Skagit River bridge collapse. That's because Gov. Inslee put the hammer down and challenged the Department of Transportation to get this bridge back into operation without delay. And they did. The bridge collapsed on May 23 in the evening. You will be able to drive across it on the summer solstice, less than a month after its collapse. That's government working for you, efficiently, effectively and without delay.
I was driving over to Cheney to talk with students and faculty at Eastern Washington University. Over half of first-year students at EWU will be the first in their families to graduate from college. It is a ladder to economic opportunity, the product of public investment in buildings, professors, and learning for over 130 years -- the product of government.
But in the past decade the legislature has taken the bottom rungs out of this ladder, making it harder for middle class families to pay for tuition. Since 2002 the state has cut funding from $66 million a year to $33 million now. How did Eastern make up for this? They raised tuition from $4,000 a year to close to $9,000.
The same trends are all over the state -- tuition skyrocketing, state support falling, middle class families wondering how to pay for higher education, and students going deeper and deeper into debt. There is a potential solution to this. We call it Pay It Forward. A student would not pay tuition for community college or four-year public university. After gaining her degree, she would contribute a fixed percent of her income to a public higher education trust fund -- 1.5 percent for community college, 3.5 percent for regional university, 4 percent for UW -- for 25 years. This funding will enable higher education for the next generation. Pay It Forward creates a debt-free degree plan for Washington students. The idea has a lot of complications, but it's catching on, with discussions occurring all over the state. And that's how I have gotten to see much of Washington the past month -- driving the roads build by our government and taking in the incredible beauty of mountains and sound.
In 1962 I visited Seattle for the world's fair. We were advised not to swim in Lake Washington because it had a sewer problem. Yesterday I swam in Lake Washington. That's because over the past 50 years our government has put in new regulations on sewer discharge and built the infrastructure and treatment plants to protect the water of Lake Washington.
Our job now is not to backslide into the belief that we can do better without government. If we do away with regulation, funding for education, and the infrastructure we all take for granted, private industry won't come running in to fill that void.
So let's enjoy the summer solstice. We are lucky to live in the Northwest. But it is more than luck. We could be breathing smog instead of clean air. We could make our kids just watch the lake, instead of swim in it. And we could only dream of a better education for them in the future, rather than figuring out how to make that happen!

John Burbank is the Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute ( He can be reached at

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