Why higher education is worth public support

The debate over state budget priorities offers a clearer picture than anything of Washingtonians’ collective values. Scarce resources require painful choices that test those values, along with our willingness to prepare adequately for the future.

Immediate needs, like protecting vulnerable children and seniors, must be addressed. How deep that protection runs is a measure of our values. Long-term investments in education, transportation and environmental protection can’t be ignored – such choices will be our legacy.

The tight budgets of recent years have forced short-term thinking in Olympia, where it always seems long-term investments can be put off for another two years. The same pressures are at play as lawmakers begin crafting a 2005-07 spending plan – revenues are expected to be some $1.6 billion short of planned spending.

Amid the investments that have been cut short in past budgets, funding for higher education stands out as one that could result in dire consequences if not reversed. Of all the factors in building a strong economy, the availability of a well-educated, well-trained workforce is at the top. Yet per-capita state funding for higher education has been on a steady slide in recent years, resulting in enormous tuition hikes and a pending enrollment crisis.

As they weigh budget priorities this year, lawmakers should ask themselves why our society values higher education. A good answer lies in the path our nation embarked on during World War II. In 1944, Congress passed the GI Bill, giving veterans unprecedented government aid in getting a college education. The result was a burgeoning, civic-minded middle class that created a higher standard of living for most Americans.

Baby Boomers, who have enjoyed the benefits, must now decide whether they will commit to extending them to future generations. It won’t happen without action.

The Baby Boom “echo” will create a surge of college freshmen over the next three years, and our colleges already have more students enrolled than the state pays for. Doors are closing to deserving students, and the prospects for community college students planning to transfer to a four-year state institution are dimming. Demand for bachelor-degree programs in key population centers – primarily Snohomish County – far exceeds the supply. Faculty have gone without cost-of-living raises for four years, hurting the state’s ability to attract and retain teaching talent.

More enrollment slots must be allocated – now and in future years – with some targeted to high-demand fields of study. Access to four-year degrees in Snohomish County must be addressed by building on successful programs and allowing community colleges to offer them in targeted fields. To ensure opportunities don’t shrink for lower-income students, higher tuition must be offset by increases in financial aid.

The success of the GI Bill shows that investments in higher education pay off for all of society. If neglected, an erosion of our standard of living is a predictable consequence. Lawmakers mustn’t let that happen.

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