Less support for higher-ed hurts students

The U.S. student loan debt is almost $1.3 trillion. That’s trillion with a “T.”

Students and families from Washington state own at least $18.3 billion of that debt, with $1.4 billion in additional borrowing last year alone.

Graduates face the toughest job market in decades and they are doing it with unprecedented student loan debt. More than 771,000 Washingtonians now hold student loans. It’s time we address this bubble before it pops!

Our anti-tax hysteria is the largest contributor to this crisis. The rhetoric of over-taxation is not supported by the facts. As demand continues to rise for services such as high-quality schools, colleges and universities, adequate prison facilities and mental health treatment, the revenues that pay for those services are shrinking as a share of our collective income.

Washingtonians are now paying 31 percent less in taxes than they did in 1990 as a share of our income. A perfect storm of increased online sales, new business tax breaks and revenue-cutting initiatives over the last two decades has put our state in financial jeopardy. As a result, college students and parents are feeling the financial pain.

At the University of Washington and Washington State University, for example, taxpayer support has shrunk by almost $8,000 per student since 1990. Tuition has gone up to make up the difference. The inflation-adjusted cost of delivering higher education has actually remained steady over the years. However, the price for students and families has skyrocketed as state cuts have been replaced by tuition. Sadly, we abandoned higher education as a public good in favor of a more cynical belief that it is merely a private benefit. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We have now created a career and college-ready high school diploma. This is a good thing, but sending more students to college makes little sense if we are going to eat up their income gains with a lifetime of debt.

Here are three things we can do in the 2015 legislative session to turn this around:

Appropriate $140 million per year to address the short-fall in the State Need Grant program. There are more than 30,000 students who qualify for state financial aid but are denied only due to lack of funds. Full funding will restore the promise of financial aid for low-income students and reduce their loan burden.

Restrict tuition growth to the inflation rate. This will create a more stable and predictable measure of tuition growth — something middle-class families need to adequately plan for their kids’ college educations. This will require a bold reinvestment once again into our colleges and universities. Political boasting about zero percent tuition increases may make for a great sound bite, but it’s not sustainable unless we restore state investments into our colleges and universities.

Expansion of dual credit course programs such as Running Start and college-in-the-high school — college-level courses offered to high school students. We are already paying for the seat time, so now it is time for a new incentive system — no book costs, no fees, no tuition for high school students willing to take rigorous college courses. If we can double the current output of dual credits, we will save students and families $1 billion over 10 years!

Until we can find the courage to rewrite our tax code and fully fund higher education, we can take these three steps to dramatically shrink the need for student borrowing. These policies, if enacted in the 2015 legislative session, will provide immediate relief for low- and middle-income families who are struggling to pay tuition bills.

What do you think about these ideas? Are you saving for your child’s college education? Have you given up due to the high costs? Send me your story and ideas at chris.reykdal@leg.wa.gov.

State Rep. Chris Reykdal, D-Tumwater, serves as vice chairman of the House Education Committee. He also serves on the House Higher Education Committee, Finance Committee, and Rules Committee. You can reach him at chris.reykdal@leg.wa.gov or 360-786-7940.

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