Op-ed: State must restore funding to higher education

By Adam Sherman and Evan Smith

Special to The Times

IT is almost surreal to think that the check graduating seniors at the University of Washington just wrote to pay for last spring quarter’s tuition was 55 percent more than what they paid as first-year students only four years ago. Undergraduate in-state tuition and mandatory fees totaled $6,802 in 2008. Last year it totaled $10,574. This year it will be $12,385.

The tuition increases for graduate students are in some cases much worse. While many variables, such as the economic recession and declining state revenues, have contributed to these unprecedented tuition hikes, the underlying narrative is clear. Public higher education in our state has not been made a priority and is now at a critical juncture.

As representatives of more than 40,000 students at the University of Washington, we hope to convey the urgent need for a renaissance of fervent support for higher education at all levels: within our academic institutions, within our state Legislature and among the public.

Not all states have cut higher-education funding. Seven states, including Illinois, North Carolina and North Dakota, increased education appropriations between 2006 and 2011. Such investments send a strong message to the public that investment in higher education is not a luxury we enjoy during good economic times but, rather, a necessity for our shared economic and intellectual future.

Higher education contributes to our society’s intellectual richness. It is a celebration of diversity of thought and it promotes economic opportunity and upward mobility for those who come from difficult socio-economic backgrounds. As some put it, it is the great equalizer.

For those who are concerned about how much our government spends, higher education is one of the most efficient ways to prevent individuals from relying on state support services such as the justice system and publicly funded welfare programs. If you want to reduce state expenditures on expensive social-welfare programs, investing in higher education is the most sustainable means of accomplishing this goal.

And no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, everyone agrees we need to get people back to work. The national unemployment rate among those with a high-school diploma is 8.7 percent compared to just 4.1 percent for those with at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For those with a graduate degree, it’s 3 percent. You simply cannot claim you care about jobs if you do not care about funding higher education.

To ensure higher education serves its purpose, the state Legislature should pursue three specific goals. First, it must restore state funding per student to pre-2008 levels. From 2008 to 2012 state funding per student at research universities dropped from $11,676 to $6,195, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Second, it needs to fully fund state financial-aid programs such as the State Need Grant, State Work Study, and the Child Care Matching Grant.

And finally, the state should pass legislation to institutionalize the student voice within higher-education governance. As the biggest shareholders, representation at the table for decision-making and policy development is a right students deserve.

Insightful public leaders of past generations knew that an investment in higher education would bring immeasurable returns to society. From Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Morrill Act granting public land for colleges, opening public higher education to the masses, to Gov. Dan Evans’ founding of Washington’s community-college system, public leaders before us have understood the importance of a strong investment in public, accessible and high-quality education. They were the leaders of their times. Who will be our leaders of today?

We implore legislators currently in office as well as those seeking public office to look to the past and recommit to a bipartisan path forward for restoring funding for higher education.

And we call upon the public to support them in this effort by voting for those who make that commitment. If we do not commit ourselves to this, the challenges we currently face are only a glimpse of the difficulties to come.

Adam Sherman is president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate at the University of Washington. Evan Smith is president of the Associated Students of the University of Washington.