Here in Washington the defunding of public universities has been particularly awful, resulting in four years of double-digit tuition increases. At the University of Washington the Class of 2013 paid tuition and fees totaling $6,802 for their 2008-2009 freshman academic year; their senior year will cost them $12,385, an 82 percent increase over four years. That's an average annual tuition hike of 16.2 percent a year (or 20.5 percent "every single year" in McKenna Math™) over a four-year period when Washington's median household income has actually fallen.
But more than just a cyclical blip this shift in the burden of paying for higher education from society as a whole to the individual students has been both dramatic and generational. In 1990 the state picked up over 70 percent of the cost of a college degree; it now subsidizes less than 30 percent. And the longer one looks back in time the starker and more profound the unraveling of this particular social contract appears.
For example, when Republican attorney general and gubernatorial wannabe Rob McKenna enrolled at the University of Washington back in 1980, tuition and fees amounted to only $687 for the academic year ($1,912 in inflation-adjusted 2012 dollars). Today's students pay 18 times more than McKenna did, or 6.5 times more when adjusting for inflation. Yet over that same period, median household income has increased by less than 13 percent in inflation adjusted dollars.
To illustrate this more sharply, McKenna's $687 tuition amounted to only 3.6 percent of the $19,009 median household income for the western United States in 1980. But today's $12,385 tuition gobbles up a whopping 23 percent of the estimated $54,000 median household income.
McKenna himself has talked a good talk about restoring education funding while providing no plan to pay for it, and like the rest of his party he is ideologically opposed to raising the taxes necessary to even halt this trend let alone reverse it. Indeed, McKenna even backed the supplemental budget senate Republicans attempted to push through in an 11th hour coup that would have cut an additional $38 million from higher education on top of the 50 percent cut our public colleges and universities had already endured in the current biennial budget. There's even reason to believe that McKenna engineered the budget coup, personally meeting with key senators to secure their allegiance.
To be fair, Democrats haven't done much better on the revenue side, but mostly out of a lack of nerve or ability than any opposition to the notion of raising the tax revenue necessary to invest in our state's workforce of the future.
There once was a time in Washington and many other states where any young person with the ability and the drive could afford a quality college education simply by working his or her way through with a part-time job. No more. Even as the cost of providing an education has remained flat we have steadily shifted the burden of paying for it to a point where we are either pricing potential students out of the market and/or graduating them with unmanageable levels of debt. The next generation of computer programmers may find $50,000 or $100,000 of student loans worth the price, but what about the next generation of school teachers or social workers? How many of our youth are being driven away from the careers they love and for which they are best suited, simply because these jobs don't pay enough to pay off the student loans necessary to pay for the education that prepares workers for them?
And what will Washington look like if we continue down this path?