By Kelli Smith
Our state used to fund public higher education as a public good. We embraced higher education as one of the foundations of our democracy. It was accessible and affordable for the vast majority of residents. But that promise of public higher education has been steadily and incrementally defunded over the past 30 years.
Our legislature has to take responsibility and cover its fair share of the higher education bill. While there are a number of reasons our representatives have been unwilling or unable to restore adequate funding to public higher education, one stands out: Our state’s tax system is riddled with loopholes and special interest tax breaks, and lower-income residents pay much higher tax rates than the well-off. We must work to fix these problems so we can restore full funding to our state’s colleges and universities.
In the meantime, as the state pays an increasingly smaller share of higher education costs, students and their families are paying more in order to earn a degree. Tuition at our state’s four-year institutions has more than tripled since 1990. And that price tag takes up a significantly greater portion of family income. For example, at the University of Washington, a year’s tuition was equal to 5.6% of median family income in 1989. Today, nearing $13,000 a year, it represents over 22% of median family income.
By 2018, two out of every three job openings will require some college education, and one out of three will require a Bachelor’s degree or better. But the escalation of tuition has put higher education out of reach for many would-be students from middle- and low-income families.
The benefits of a Pay It Forward program are many: it will eliminate the number-one accelerator of student debt – tuition. It relieves students of the psychological barrier of high tuition and loan repayment, and the burden of crippling student debt. It also increases career choice by getting rid of minimum loan payments and replacing them with a manageable and predictable contribution.
We have to expand access to higher education. Students must be able to participate in higher education without assuming ever more debt in student loans. That is what Pay It Forward makes possible.
The Economic Opportunity Institute has been laying the policy groundwork and building constituent support for Pay It Forward. Our children and grandchildren can’t wait for the perfect solution. But we can ensure their participation in public higher education. That’s not too much to ask!
Pay It Forward is a policy proposal of the Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI). Kelli Smith is a member of EOI and PSARA.