The past week has not been a good one for higher education. As Governor Inslee (looking back to before November, it feels nice to call him ‘Governor’), released his budget priorities last Thursday, it included a recommendation for tuition to increase 3–5% (3 percent for regional universities like Western Washington University, 5 percent for Washington State University and the University of Washington). This is combined news from the middle of March that the tuition increases in Washington are the second worst in the nation, ranking only behind Arizona. This also runs against the logic asserted by a recent poll which found that voters in Washington state overwhelmingly support increased funding to higher education.
While this news contains a bit of personal relief (I was raised in Arizona), Inslee’s recommended tuition hike will add on to the nearly $4,200 increase in tuition since 2008. While more money is proposed for financial aid, this does nothing to solve the affordability issues in higher education, especially because of the growing “dead-zone” comprised of students whose families make too much to receive financial aid, but not enough to actually pay for college. In addition, low income students are scared away by the “sticker shock” of high tuition prices, regardless of the aid they receive.
Additionally, Inslee’s proposal creates a “competitive enrollment pool” for schools to compete for money to increase slots for Science, Technology, Mathematics, and Engineering degrees. This is similar to Governor Gregoire’s budget before she left office, but ignores higher education as a whole, even though he acknowledges how much tuition has increased in his budget priority document.
In other news detrimental for our system of higher education, the Washington State DREAM Act is dead. Despite a coalition of immigrant, student, and youth organizations, HB 1817 failed to be put to a vote in the Senate Higher Education Committee, despite having the votes to go into law. Although the current Senate Majority Leader, Rodney Tom (~-Medina), supports the DREAM Act, this either calls into question his effectiveness as Majority Leader or his support of the DREAM Act itself.
This outcome is not expected, seeing as after the hearing for the Act last Thursday Senator Barbara Bailey, the Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, published an op-ed saying that the DREAM Act was an unfunded bill, despite supporting a bill that would allow more than 1,000 students attending Western Governors’ University access to the same source of financial aid. Western Governors’ University is an entirely online university, and it seems that Senator Bailey would rather support a very peculiar form of education rather than see students who are undocumented, students who are striving to achieve their degrees and have overcome giant obstacles to be at the best universities in the nation for degree completion.
The next step in higher education funding will be when both houses of the legislature release their budget. As this process happens, students are struggling to pay for college, and universities are struggling to retain faculty and staff that will continue offering the quality education students need for success. Additionally, it will be critical that funding for higher education comes from new revenue, as if it originates from cuts to other programs it will affect students just the same, as many current and future students rely upon programs such food assistance the same as non-students in our state. In fact, these programs contribute to providing students the opportunity to earn their degree.
Governor Inslee’s budget priority proposal was disappointing regarding higher education, and while it included much needed investments in K‑12 education and healthcare, it is critical that higher education is made more affordable and accessible for students in Washington; both current students and students to come. Whether the Senate will do so without cutting other programs is unsure; the best chances for the best budget for all parts of our state, a responsible budget for our commonwealth, will likely come from the House.