A new idea for expanding college access

By John Burbank

This time of year, high school seniors who plan to go to community college or the University of Washington take a look at the actual price of admission — and then try to figure out with their parents whether they can make it work. It gets tougher every year.

Just 10 years ago, UW tuition was $5,000 a year. In 2010 it was nearly $9,000. And over the past couple years it has shot up, to more than $10,500. The university hasn’t yet decided what tuition will be next year — but another increase is a safe bet.

Community colleges are no free ride, either. At Everett Community College, tuition and fees increased from $2,200 a decade ago to more than $3,500 now. For perspective, in 1993 that amount would have bought you a year at the University of Washington. (All of these dollar figures take inflation into account.)

Every time tuition goes up, another student decides not to knock on the door to higher education. “Sticker shock,” as it’s known in higher education circles, puts very real psychological and financial barriers in front of Washington’s high school seniors. Financial aid hasn’t kept up with tuition, and students are rightfully leery of graduating deep in debt.

Leaders in business, in the Legislature and even the governor herself say ensuring our kids have the opportunity for higher education is a priority. But they seem quite unwilling to close tax loopholes to fund those opportunities. Nor will they advocate for increasing taxes on the very wealthy to fund education — whether K-12, community college, or our state universities.

In the meantime, since family incomes flatlined during (and really, even before) the recession, tuition increases are effectively a tax avoided by the wealthy and shouldered by the middle class.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

When our current governor, many of our legislators and lots of baby boomers — including myself — went to college, tuition was about $1,500 a year (again, in today’s dollars). If that was good for us and for Washington’s economy, it should be good for this generation of students too.

It shouldn’t be too hard to afford that again. Per capita state income has increased more than 75 percent. But of course, that’s just an average. The typical family hasn’t seen anything near that kind of increase in purchasing power. That’s enjoyed only by the tip top, like Howard Schultz from Starbucks, who pulled down a cool $4.4 million in cash last year.

So as a compromise, we could revert to state funding levels from just five years ago. That would put UW tuition at $6,500 a year (a full $4,000 less than today), and Everett Community College tuition at $2,800 ($700 less).

But instead of aiming for a watered-down version of the past, let’s do something different and better for the future. Let’s give an open opportunity for any graduating senior — limited by only their own academic performance — to attend their local community college or a state public university, tuition-free. In exchange, a legal quid pro quo: the student contributes 1.5 percent of their income, if they attended community college, or 4 percent if they attended a university, for 25 years.

From the student’s point of view, here’s what that would look like. After you graduate from the UW, if you make $30,000 a year, you’d contribute $100 a month. A few years (and a few promotions) later, if you’re making $60,000, you’d contribute $200 a month.

Or, if you graduate from Everett Community College, you’d pay $40 a month on a salary of $32,000 a year. You’d pay $100 a month if you’re lucky enough to make $80,000.

Whatever your income, you pay 1.5 percent to your community college for 25 years, and you’re done. Or you pay 4 percent to your university for 25 years and you are done with that.

From the state’s perspective, this system would create a funding stream sufficient to enable the next generation of students to gain open access and opportunity to higher education. Their yearly payments, in turn, would pay forward the same opportunity to the next generation of students after them.

There are certainly some legal kinks that would need to be worked out, such as a federal or interstate partnership to ensure students who move to other states still make their payments.

But before we go there, here’s what I’d like to know: Do you think this idea would help ensure students have an open opportunity to higher education? If yes, why? If not, why not — and what alternative would you propose that keeps the doors of educational opportunity open?

John Burbank is executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org) . His email address is john@eoionline.org.