A tuition-squeeze remedy

The kerfuffle over higher-ed tuition is a necessary distraction. The pick-your-poison alternatives of pricing out middle-class Washingtonians or sandbagging program quality are both untenable. Balance is elusive, transcending the student bootstrapping her way through college and the university pasha nervously eying layoffs.

The paradox of Washington’s public universities is the dual mission of serving as a research powerhouse a la Stanford or Harvard while attracting brainy but often low-income students from Monroe to Marysville. The fear is high-performing institutions filing for divorce and rambling off with the richest student-suitors.

The Legislature could begin with its own version of the Hippocratic Oath, to first do no harm. The Hippocratic MO translates into funding higher ed to backfill the whacks universities absorbed the past few years while aiming, consistent with Gov. Gregoire’s final budget, to avoid spikes in tuition. As most (sober) lawmakers note, enhancing quality without an attendant rise in tuition is too much of a good thing. A real solution demands a comprehensive remedy, tapping the private sector’s appetite for professional, tech-savvy grads.

To goose access for middle and low-income students, Washington’s business community paired with the state in 2011 to create the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS). The mission is to provide scholarships to 5,000 Washington students annually, maxing to $25,000 over the course of a college career. The area of study must be either health-related or STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.) Note to Amazon: How about a WSOS for wordsmiths?

Policymakers and big donors recognize the demand for STEM grads, and home-grown trumps imported talent. Cost-prohibitive tuition remains a stumbling block for qualified students, with less than a third of Pell-grant recipients finishing their associate degree within four years. Scholarships mortar the funding cracks and bolster graduation rates.

Boeing and Microsoft are ponying up $50 million for the WSOS and the state kicked in $5 million. The goal is to raise $500 million in private funds matched with state support for a total of $1 billion by 2020. The campaign has already yielded impressive results, with 3,000 students awarded $1,000 scholarships in the spring of 2012 (the gift ramps up to $5,000 for seniors and juniors.) The impressive College Success Foundation is the program administrator.

Individuals and companies in Snohomish and Island counties can contribute to scholarship funds that are then matched by the state and fully tax-deductible. More significantly, the WSOS establishes a tax-exempt endowment that can’t be drained like the state’s tobacco-settlement funds. The WSOS is a partial salve to Washington’s tuition crunch. It merits strong support.

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