Our nation is currently in the midst of an educational crisis. The millennial generation, my generation, is the first in our country's history to be less educated than our parents. America's high-paying, unionized jobs have largely disappeared, and the few options available for workers without a college degree are in the low-paying, no-benefits service industry. The purpose of public higher education is to provide the state and nation with an active and informed citizenry with the tools necessary to develop creative solutions to many problems, whether they are financial, medical, societal or otherwise. Without significant changes to our educational system, affordability in higher education will continue to spiral downward, further exacerbating recession.
Many people are trying to develop solutions to the economic crisis, and some ideas are better than others. One of the worst ideas, especially in a time of such negative economic conditions, is to cut support for public higher education. A highly educated and adaptable workforce is the key to Washington State's ability to weather this recession and emerge at the forefront of economic development. Some have come out in favor of cutting state support to higher education while at the same time empowering universities to set tuition rates, deeming it an option to save money while maintaining educational quality. I firmly believe in the importance of quality, but this cannot be levied on the backs of already overburdened students.
The most obvious reason against institutional tuition setting authority is that it establishes an inherent conflict of interest. Such a move would allow schools to set their rates of revenue while minimizing the legislative oversight so critical to the existence of public agencies. The likely result of a policy change like this would be the establishment of a high-tuition, high-aid model similar to that of many private schools. The rationale for such a model is that the wealthier students pay a higher rate of tuition to support poorer students in an attempt to keep rates of tuition, after financial aid, relatively low. While this might look good on the surface, such a move would have far reaching negative consequences.
We as taxpayers need to constantly hold our leaders accountable. One of the most prominent problems posed by the model detailed above is that public universities would essentially take the burden of taxation away from lawmakers who lack the political will to make the hard choices necessary to establish viable long-term solutions to many of today's problems, giving them the green light to further cut support to higher education. This slow march toward privatization will destroy college affordability in a state that already receives an F in that area by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
Study after study has shown the number one barrier to attending college is the published rate of tuition. While it is often not the price students actually pay because of scholarships and grants, tuition costs are nonetheless the largest barriers to students attending college. These instances of “sticker shock” have been found to disproportionately affect those from minority populations or of low-income. A 2003 Congressional study on the “College Cost Crisis” found that “cost factors prevent 48 percent of college-qualified high school graduates from attending a four-year institution, and 22 percent from attending any college at all.”
It was also determined in that study that by the end of this decade 2 million qualified students would not be able to attend college because of costs.
It has long been the official stance of the Associated Students at Western Washington University that “low tuition is the best form of financial aid.” While some may dismiss this statement as naive, it stands as true today as it did when first adopted. The truth of the matter is that regardless of the financial backgrounds of our current and past students, the vast majority are middle class. Because most college students are under the age of 24, they are considered dependents on their Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). As a result, their parents' income determines aid eligibility. What the FAFSA does not address is the fact that these assessments are based on past income, which do not take into account sudden changes like job loss or divorce.
Another solution that has been proposed, but is equally dangerous to the future of college affordability is a graduated tuition rate. This is enticing because it enables proponents to sidestep the psychological barriers associated with a high-tuition, high-aid model by setting different sticker prices for different income brackets.
Wealthier and upper-middle class students would pay tuition closer to that of a private school, while lower-middle class and poor students would pay a rate traditionally seen at a public school. The argument for this model is very similar to the one previously discussed, the wealthier students would subsidize the cost of education for poorer students. Unfortunately, this opens a whole new can of worms.
The potential for abuse is significant. Schools, under the strain of low revenue from poorer students, could begin admitting students based not on merit, but on their financial means. This could easily decrease the quality of institutions as they focus more on financial qualifications rather than academic qualifications. This could have the opposite effects as intended, putting college more out of reach for those who need that financial support now more than ever. Education should be the great equalizer, and we have the opportunity make that change. The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has said that if all minorities in Washington State reached the same level of educational attainment as whites, annual personal income would increase an additional $7 billion dollars. This is the time that we should be closing the achievement gap, not widening it.
Even with higher incomes, many families are unable to afford tuition as it stands now. According to the Federal Reserve, nationwide consumer debt doubled from 1992 to 2002 from $1 trillion to $2 trillion and is now over $2.5 trillion. By the end of 2004, the American savings rate hit zero and the average household owed 113% of its annual take home pay. Now, according to the Center for American Progress, the figure stands closer to 133%. The traditional means of saving for college have been crippled as State-based 529 college saving plans have been hit just as hard as 401ks and IRAs. So not only were families not saving enough for children's education, even if they did it would be of little help because of the current financial crisis. Subsequently, with tuition increases, more students will be forced to take out loans in larger sums in order to pay for their education.
Already, 2/3 of the nation's students borrow for school. According to the 2003-2004 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study published by the National Center for Education Statistics, the average amount of student loan debt is around $20,000. Multiple surveys have shown that college students often overestimate future incomes and underestimate loan payments, setting themselves up for even more debt. It is estimated that 39% of student borrowers now graduate with unmanageable debt burdens. Another survey found that 59% of recent graduates said their student loan debt makes it difficult for them to fulfill their financial goals.
The benefit of higher education, much more so than personal growth, is that of public good. With higher education, one can be more productive, more adaptable to change, and less a burden on state resources (such as basic healthcare and corrections) due to increased income potential. If 39% of our college graduates are unable to contribute to society and the economy due to their student debt, and 59% are unable to save for retirement or a home, then something is seriously wrong with our current system.
What we need in Washington State, as well as nationally, is a renewed commitment to higher education. We need citizens, university administrators, and lawmakers with the political will to stand up and demand investment in the future of our children as well as ourselves. We need all stakeholders to sit at one table and create a solution that truly works for current and future students. I know that hard decisions are being made every day, but the truth of the matter is education is the key to our global competitiveness and economic well-being. Without a highly educated and skilled workforce, America will continue to slide downward in the areas of innovation and economic growth. Please, take some time to call or write your legislators and ask them to preserve the quality and accessibility of higher education for years to come.
President, Associated Students of
Western Washington University