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Washington’s leaders have shown political indifference to higher education, allowing tuition to spiral out of control and failing to put enough money into financial aid to help ease the cost, a new report says.

That blunt assessment comes from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, who also took Washington to task two years ago, criticizing the state’s political leaders for abdicating their role in higher education and creating a leadership vacuum.

The newest report, “Renewing the Promise: State Policies to Improve Higher Education,” examines 10 years of data in five states, including Washington, to show that weak state policy is often responsible for low rates of college attainment.

It was produced by researchers at Penn’s Graduate School of Education.

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One of the principal authors, researcher Joni Finney, said in an interview that one of Washington’s biggest problems is failing to come up with a reliable system of funding.

“If you’re not going to change how higher education is financed in this state … you’re not going to change higher education,” she said.

On Wednesday, state policy leaders pushed back against the researchers’ assessments.

“I think the leadership vacuum is closing in our state,” said Gene Sharratt, the executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC), a government policy group formed more than a year ago to make higher-education recommendations to the Legislature.

Sharratt cited several examples, including the Real Hope Act, which extends state college financial aid to undocumented immigrants. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the act into law Wednesday.

The WSAC is also working on a state funding policy, although it has not yet provided details.

Maud Daudon, head of the WSAC council and president of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said she thinks the council is addressing many of the Penn researchers’ critiques.

The WSAC has published a 10-year road map that outlines ways to expand higher education. That report acknowledges many of the shortcomings the Penn researchers spotlight — especially the low numbers of minority and low-income Washingtonians who go to college or get advanced training after high school.

“Our goals are a starting point for building political consensus on what we are trying to accomplish, and the action plans will flush out how to get there,” said Daudon, by email.

State Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, also said he thinks the state is on the right path to strengthening its higher-education system. Seaquist, who heads the House Higher Education Committee, said the system needs more money, which could come from revenue growth, tax reforms, a complete overhaul of the way student aid is distributed and a focus on efficiency.

He’s also a supporter of the “pay-it-forward” concept, allowing students to attend college tuition-free, then pay off the debt as a small, fixed percentage of their future income over as many as 25 years.

So which states are doing a good job of financing higher education?

Finney praised Maryland, which dedicates a portion of its corporate income tax to its Higher Education Investment Fund. Washington does not have such a fund.

Maryland has also tied tuition rates to the state’s median family income, so tuition doesn’t exceed what most families can afford. Some Washington lawmakers have proposed similar legislation here.

Finney also said that Maryland’s university system built political goodwill by getting rid of degree programs with low enrollment, and reducing spending in other ways. The result: With little animosity between political parties and strong leadership, state lawmakers put “a plan in place that can serve them in the long run,” she said.

Sharratt, of the WSAC, said there are hopeful signs this year that legislators are coming together in a similar fashion.

He said the Legislature is expected to pass a resolution this session that adopts two big WSAC goals: that all adults ages 25-44 will earn a high-school diploma or its equivalent by 2023, and that at least 70 percent will have a postsecondary credential by 2023.

The Penn researchers’ first report, published in January 2012, put much of the blame on then-Gov. Chris Gregoire and lawmakers for allowing a “leadership vacuum” to develop.

Later, Finney said, the researchers received a “not-so-nice” letter from Gregoire, defending her record and describing the work she had commissioned to address the problem.

But Finney said commissions and studies only go so far.

“Political leadership is an ongoing thing — it has to be ongoing, it has to be at the top of the agenda, and it’s really missing in Washington,” she said.

The report was financed through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation. The authors plan to publish a book later this year that takes a closer look at the issues.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.

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