How can We Protect Public Higher Education?

Jessica Spinney from WSU Vancouver and vice president of federal affairs for the Washington Student Association during the presentation at UWT. Photo by Andy Cox.

Jessica Spinney from WSU Vancouver and vice president of federal affairs for the Washington Student Association during the presentation at UWT. Photo by Andy Cox.

Jessica presenting on the sources of revenue which feed into money for education. Photo by Andy Cox.

Jessica presenting on the sources of revenue which feed into money for education. Photo by Andy Cox.

This chart shows the decrease in state contribution to higher education and the resulting increase in student tuition costs. Graphic courtesy of Jessica Spinney.

This chart shows the decrease in state contribution to higher education and the
resulting increase in student tuition costs. Graphic courtesy of Jessica Spinney.

Anyone involved in public higher education over the past couple of years has watched a steady decline as universities ask more and more of students who have less and less to give.

On Wednesday, February 12, Jessica Spinney, a student at WSU Vancouver and vice president of federal affairs for the Washington Student Association, visited UWT to give a presentation on the current state of higher education funding and what we can do to slow or even reverse the trajectory of the situation.

Spinney explained that the biggest issue currently facing students is debt.

“[It] is a very complex issue,” she said.

She started out by giving the usual round of depressing numbers:  the nation’s student debt has quadrupled over the last decade, and currently sits at $1.2 trillion, more than car loan and credit card debt combined. Students graduate with an average of $25,000 in debt, and one in five will default on those loans.

Why is this happening? In a nutshell, tax cuts for the wealthy that started in the 80s lead to a significant decrease in federal revenue, while expenditure continued to rise.  Since higher education is not seen, on the state or federal level, as a legislative priority to the same degree as primary education, or the array of other programs, it is often the first to be cut when things are tight.

Washington is on the higher end of this scale, with a 37.5 percent decrease in funding for higher education over the past four years. This means an increase in tuition costs for students, another area where Washington has reached the top five with a 63.6 percent increase over the past four years. However, as the demand for college degrees in the workforce has increased, students are forced to go into debt for an education in the hopes of landing a job at some point.

The government has not stepped in to temper these attacks on one of its potentially most lucrative investments because student loans are a fairly lucrative business as well. In 2013 alone the federal government made $45.4 billion on student loans.

“They are making bank off us,” Spinney said, “that doesn’t give them much incentive to make changes.”

Fortunately not all hope is lost, and civically engaged students across the country have been successful in gaining ground in the fight against unaffordable university costs.

We are enjoying a tuition freeze this year because of the lobbying of the Washington Student Association, a group of student representatives from each of our state universities who advocate for students in Olympia.

But there is a lot more to be done. We are at a point in time where public higher education can go one of two ways: it can continue down its current path and become an inaccessible private purchase, or students can step up to return it to its initial purpose as a public investment.

The first and most obvious step is political engagement, keeping up with how higher education issues are being played out in the political arena, and voting for candidates and legislation that protect our interests by lowering loan interest rates and making financial aid available for more students for a start. And an engaged student voting body will go far in ensuring that colleges are held accountable for the public funds they do receive. If any legislation related to higher education is of particular interest to you, bring it to the attention of your ASUWT senate representatives who can in turn potentially add it to the list of issues for which they lobby. Students can also get involved with the WSA through student government and attend the meetings where these issues and their solutions are discussed.

For more information visit: http://www.wastudents.org/

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