We need to maintain higher education as a public good to grow and strengthen Washington's middle class families
We all benefit when we make investments in public goods, including our public schools, public roads, public bridges, public parks, publicly-funded research – and, of course, our public universities. Now more than ever, if we want to strengthen and grow the middle class and generate a new wave of economic growth, we must keep the “public” in public higher education.
Just look at history. In 1943, the G.I. Bill was responsible for millions of veterans attending college. This investment was not just an investment in individuals, it was an investment in communities all across the nation. And this investment played a critical role in moving the nation from a war economy to a consumer economy. The result was a period of great prosperity – between the late 40s and the late 70s – where income was dispersed relatively equally, long-term growth was shared, and what we now know as the middle class emerged.
Along with the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Federal Aid Highway Act, the G.I. Bill is widely acknowledged to have been one of the most successful public investments of the 20th century. And ever since, for individuals from lower-income backgrounds, higher education has been a gateway to the middle class. For the middle class, it has provided a path to economic security and continued prosperity.
Clearly, where supporting affordable access to higher education for students of all backgrounds is concerned, Washington state should be “all-in.” But, of course, we are not – we’re moving in the opposite direction. The Great Recession has contributed to the trend of a major disinvestment in higher education in Washington. State funding for higher education has been cut in half over the past 5 years. Tuition has doubled.
In 2000, the state paid for 72 percent of the cost of a student’s education, with tuition accounting for the rest. In 2013, those numbers have flipped – the state now only pays 35 percent. In other words, for the middle-class gateway to success and prosperity is being closed to low and middle-income students who need those opportunities the most.
Higher education is a public good aimed at improving the quality of life for students from lower and middle-class families. But, despite tremendous wealth elsewhere in society, the burden of these costs is being offloaded to the students themselves. This isn’t fair and it isn’t sustainable.
Our current path will eventually transform higher education from a public good to – like gated communities, boarding schools and country clubs – a private good only accessible to the already prosperous.
If this occurs, we will price more and more Washington citizens not just out of the higher education system but out of the middle class altogether. The private sector will suffer and our economy will decline as growing numbers of our citizens are unable to compete for high-skilled, middle-class jobs – creating a vicious cycle of ever-weakening demand, fewer and fewer jobs, and falling wages.
If we reverse course by making higher education more accessible, we can grow the middle class, increase consumption of goods and services, and create more and better jobs and ever-increasing demand – all in a virtuous cycle of growth and shared prosperity.