Washington state must not shortchange its citizens' access to a college education. Guest columnist Aaron Katz argues its better to close tax "loopholes" than to inflict other cuts on the state's higher-education institutions.

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WHEN Michael Young arrives at the University of Washington, he will join the presidents of other state colleges and universities who are facing staggering cuts in state funding of higher education. Legislators are now considering budget proposals for 2011-2013 that would further damage these critical public institutions.

The fundamental mission of Washington’s public institutions is to educate the next generation of citizens and lay the groundwork for our state’s future prosperity. Neither our democracy nor our economy will thrive without investing in this mission.

By 2018, two-thirds of all jobs in Washington will require some postsecondary education, so access to higher education is a prerequisite for financial security. That access is being threatened by the state’s disinvestment.

In short, our higher-education system is in the midst of a crisis, one that is detailed in the Washington State Budget & Policy Center’s new report, “Undermining Prosperity: Higher Education Cuts Weaken Access, Affordability, Quality.” It finds that current budget proposals would make a dire situation significantly worse.

The report tells a grim tale. Where once a university degree was affordable to nearly anyone because state taxpayers provided adequate support, students and their families must now shoulder more than half of the cost. Proposals on the table in Olympia will cut $500 million from Washington’s higher-education system, on top of more than $770 million in cuts over the last two years. That will drive student tuition to 65 percent or more of college costs, the exact reverse of the ratio between tuition and state support that existed only 15 years ago. At UW, state funding is the same today as it was in 1990, even though it serves 10,000 additional students.

The result of this dramatic shift is predictable. The recent story of a local straight-A high-school senior being rejected by UW is just the beginning. More and more, universities and colleges will choose “higher revenue” students — out-of-staters — over lower revenue, in-state ones.

Liberal arts programs — which helped to build an educated citizenry that understands the social, philosophical, and political basis for American democracy and learns from the lessons of history — will be shunned in favor of programs that attract high-paying “clients.” Students from lower-income families will find the costs of a college degree at their own, local universities to be beyond their reach, further dividing our society into haves and have-nots.

Legislators just this week gave the state’s public universities greater authority to set undergraduate tuition.

Some argue that we’ll just increase financial aid to make sure anyone can afford to go to college in Washington. That’s a pipe dream. The Budget & Policy Center’s report highlights that 22,000 students who qualified for a State Need Grant over the last two years did not receive assistance because of a lack of funding. And the recently passed 2011 state supplemental budget cut financial aid by $25 million over the 2009 level, adding to reductions in other aid programs, like work study, scholarships and loans.

We still have time to reverse course. Our representatives in Olympia must take a more balanced approach to the budget, one that includes new revenue as well as cuts. Otherwise, no higher-education leader, however talented, will be able to reverse the rapid decline of the UW or its sister institutions. Giving voters the chance to eliminate outdated, ineffective and costly tax loopholes is a promising pathway to a budget that better preserves critically important public investments like higher education.

The choices we face today are stark and the stakes are high. If we don’t invest adequately in higher education now, we mortgage the future of our state.

Aaron Katz is a lecturer at the University of Washington Departments of Health Services and Global Health and board chairman of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center. These views do not necessarily represent those of the UW.