In Washington, higher-education funding is (or at least should be) a bipartisan touchstone, a leg up for poor and middle-class students and a spur to a high-tech and manufacturing-centric economy. Year after year in Olympia, higher ed was cast as a core service, as integral to the state’s economic and social fabric as transportation and human services.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. In the miasma of the Great Recession, austerity became the new normal, with tuition hikes a partial backfill for draconian funding cuts. Since the 2005-07 biennium, tuition at Washington’s research universities has soared 118 percent, with a corresponding decline in state funding of 36 percent (read: less for more.) We countenance the decline at our own peril.
On Tuesday, the state Senate’s Majority Coalition floated a higher-ed plan that brings the funding dilemma into focus. The majority’s proposal consists of a 3 percent in-state tuition reduction, a $3 billion higher-ed appropriation for the biennium, a 7 percent expansion of the state’s need grant to benefit 4,600 more students, and $50 million in new “performance funding” that will track with various metrics such as freshman retention and the number of undergrad STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) degrees.
Republicans have wisely followed the lead of Sen. Barbara Bailey, chair of the Higher Education Committee, and jettisoned the idea of gutting the Guaranteed Education Tuition Plan (GET), a program that has made higher education a manageable option for middle-class families.
“This plan will not only make higher ed more affordable, it will stabilize the GET program so that families can continue investing in their children’s future education,” Bailey said. “This is a win for our students, it’s a win for our families, and it is a great opportunity for our institutions of higher learning to receive incentivized funding based on outcomes.”
There is some fuzzy math that needs to be re-penciled, including how to underwrite the plan while finagling a K-12 infusion mandated by the McCleary decision. $300 million is essentially carry-forward/stop-the-bleeding money, although $75 million is new. Nevertheless, tuition reductions will drain much of that. An alternative is to freeze tuition for two years and add $225 million as recommended by the Council of Presidents.
Minority Democrats sound ready to find common cause. “We’re open to working with them on the math and making sure the solutions we agree on are backed up by real numbers,” Sens. Jeanne Kohl-Welles and David Frockt said in a statement.
Let’s hope so. Higher education shouldn’t be a political football.