Washington state budget writers should allow the state's four-year universities to raise tuition up to 12 percent a year — rather than the current 7-percent cap, argues Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle. The universities would be required to use a large amount of the revenue to target financial aid toward the middle class. "These students and...

Share story

THESE are challenging times and this is the moment to summon the moral courage to question stale assumptions about how we spend tax dollars, manage the institutional bureaucracy and deploy our resources on behalf of real people living real lives.

With this spirit in mind, it is unacceptable that the University of Washington and our other public four-year colleges and universities struggle to keep their doors open to new students at the very time we need to educate more than ever. It is time to engage in a deeper, more honest public dialogue about the infrastructure of higher education and the profoundly serious implications and poor design of our current tuition policies.

Compared with other premier public and private universities nationwide, the price of attending Washington’s universities is a smoking-hot deal for students. A bachelor’s degree from them is generally a ticket to tremendous lifelong economic opportunity, yet its cost is a fraction of similar public and private universities in other states.

That’s why, alongside a much more aggressive effort to improve how the universities spend public dollars, I believe it is time to actually raise tuition and use the new dollars to substantially increase both access and meaningful new financial aid for the middle class.

Our state’s tuition structure is backward, regressive and inefficient: We are today using precious tax dollars to in effect take money from the vast majority of genuine middle-class families in order to subsidize wealthier families who haven’t asked for a huge subsidy and have the ability to pay much more than they currently do under our current flat-rate “low tuition” policy.

As we write the most difficult state budget in generations, I’m pushing hard for comprehensive tuition-policy reform. I’m strongly advocating a proposal to grant our state’s public four-year universities the authority to raise resident undergraduate tuition by up to 12 percent annually, elevating the existing 7-percent cap. The schools would be required to designate a substantial portion of the new revenue toward new grants targeted at middle-class students.

As the situation exists today, these students and their families are caught in a horrible Catch 22: too wealthy to receive financial aid and too poor to comfortably afford college.

In Washington, a mere 20 percent of lower-income students successfully attend universities — making us a shocking 39th in the nation in this category — yet our state’s entire tuition model pretends to be designed around their interests. The “low tuition” model in Washington is an emperor with no clothes.

In Pennsylvania, by contrast, tuition is double that of ours, yet it is first in the nation in the percentage of lower-income students accessing higher education. The “high financial aid, high tuition” model is good policy but tough to digest politically.

Under the tuition model I’m proposing, middle-class families of four with annual incomes of between $52,500 and $73,250 would qualify for meaningful, need-based, state financial assistance for the first time. We can create the largest expansion of financial aid to the middle class in decades.

As the only child of a single mother, and someone who put myself through college on grants, loans, scholarship and work study, I think I have street cred to respectfully agitate for a more-progressive tuition model. With four young children of my own, I’m inspired to work with the Legislature’s higher-education captains, Rep. Deb Wallace and Sen. Derek Kilmer, to open the doors of opportunity to all students and families to build our state’s quality of life and long-term economic security.

We are an entrepreneurial and dynamic state, and higher education must be the very core of our long-term economic-recovery strategy. Let’s have the courageous honesty to acknowledge that it’s time for change.

Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, represents the 36th Legislative District.