We simply need to lower tuition

There is a new study out that shows that low income students who get free tuition are more likely to go to college. That piece of common sense stood up to the investigation of six academic researchers. They could have just asked their neighbors.

The program these researchers were looking at is called College Bound. It is a good program. Here is how it works: when you are in 7th or 8th grade, and if your family income is below $42,000 (for a family of four), you can sign up for College Bound. If you make it through high school with at least a 2.0 GPA, don’t get in trouble with the law, apply to a public community college or four-year college, and your family income upon graduation from high school is still below $53,000, then you can get free tuition plus $500 a year for books and incidental expenses. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the benefits of this program. Enrollment in college right after high school almost doubled for College Bound participants, compared to that of other low-income kids who were not on the College Bound track, and even exceeded the enrollment of other kids not considered low-income.

This is a good start. But it is only a start, because it leaves a lot of kids out. For example, what happens if your family income is “too much,” say $45,000 for a family of four, when you are in middle school? No College Bound for you, even if that income falls when you are in high school. What happens if you qualify but don’t sign up in 8th grade? No College Bound for you. What happens if you qualify, you sign up, you get good grades in high school, your parents add work hours, and your family income “zooms” up to $55,000 for a family of four? No College Bound for you.

There is a program called the State Need Grant for students of families with income up to $57,500 for a family of four. At that level, it contributes about 40 percent of the cost of tuition. It funds about 75,000 students. But this program has been starved for resources by the Legislature, so that 32,000 students who have applied for and are eligible for the State Need Grant receive no funding whatsoever.

And what about for the student coming from the typical household, say one with an income between $60,000 and $75,000 – right in the middle of incomes in our state. Does our state provide tuition assistance for a student from this household? No. Instead, this student and her family are forced to go into debt to pay for the skyrocketing cost of tuition, which is now almost double what it was five years ago. In fact, tuition at the University of Washington is closing in on almost a quarter of the typical household income in our state. And that is just tuition, and just for one student!

So is the Legislature contemplating easing tuition for middle class students? No, the contrary. Both the House and the Senate budgets allow colleges and universities to raise tuition and mandatory fees … again! As if college costs are not already far enough out of reach for middle class students.

What we really need is to simply lower tuition. And that means more public funding of higher education … which means closing some tax loopholes, instead of opening up more. One small loophole allows companies to avoid paying any taxes on the windfall profits they make from investing money in Wall Street. That little give-away to major corporations costs the citizens of this state about $150 million a year. That money could be used to reduce tuition across the board by $500 a year, as well as provide the state need grant to 19,000 additional eligible students. That would be a start.

College Bound shows how to open up the doors of higher education and personal advancement for the youth of our state. What we need to do now is make those doors of advancement a lot wider and accessible for all of our children. We have the money to do so in our state. We just need the political will to make that happen. We are still looking for that!

John Burbank is the Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (www.eoionline.org). He can be reached at john@eoionline.org

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