You can count on one hand the politicians in Olympia who genuinely care about Washington students having affordable access to high quality public four-year higher education.  But you can’t swing a dead cat in Olympia without hitting a politician who’s pandering to the cheap seats about tuition.  

venn$$$Last week, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill taking tuition authority away from the state universities. Not to be outdone, the Senate passed a bill that would cut tuition.  And the week before that, Governor Inslee toured two state universities, touting his proposed tuition freeze.  

But a funny thing happened to the Governor on the way to his photo ops.  Some students asked him questions about his commitment to the value of their educations.  At Western Washington University and Central Washington University, students expressed appreciation for the Governor’s proposed tuition freeze, but then went on to ask why his budget had not included any significant state reinvestment in their universities.  

This Governor-Student colloquy pretty much sums up the current higher ed political dynamic in Washington.  Six or seven years ago, public four-year higher ed wasn’t on any political radar screen.  Legislators openly admitted that caring about state universities didn’t bring them any votes or any campaign cash.  This is why, even in the days when the state picked up 70% of the tab for college, our universities were still dramatically underfunded compared to other states.  When the last recession came and tuition skyrocketed because state university funding was cut in half, the higher ed community began to organize.  Students, faculty, administrators, regents and trustees, parents, alumni, and even the Seattle Times began to educate the public and the legislature about the social, cultural, and economic importance of healthy state universities.  This organizing paid dividends in 2013, when the legislature made a small reinvestment in higher ed which allowed them to freeze tuition rates. 

This tuition freeze proved very popular with voters, to the point where, in the 2014 election, higher ed became a campaign issue for the first time in anyone’s memory.  The airwaves and mailboxes were filled with promises to not raise tuition.  

So now we’re at the point where politicians have to gauge whether voters are paying as much attention as the students who questioned Governor Inslee.  Everybody who’s up for reelection, everybody with one eye on the governor’s mansion feels like they have to freeze tuition.  “I kept college affordable” has become a must-have campaign slogan.  What ambitious politicians are left to wonder about is just how irresponsible they can be in grabbing that slogan.  

Freezing tuition without significant state reinvestment in higher ed will only leave students paying more for educations that are worth less.  As we’ve pointed out again and again here at the blog, Washington ranks 49th in the country in total per-student funding for public higher ed.  Freezing tuition with no increase in state funding will leave us falling only further into that sub-basement.  Fewer students will have access to college, the classes they need won’t be there, and their time to graduation (and thus their cost) will increase.  And the quality of the education they receive will inevitably erode.  

The students who hassled the governor understand this.  Legislators and rumored gubernatorial candidates have to start asking themselves and their consultants how many voters also understand.  Can they get away with the instant gratification of a no-investment tuition freeze that will ultimately punish students or do they have to actually do the responsible thing and find a couple of hundred million dollars to reinvest in public higher ed?

The Western and Central students may very well be the canaries in the coal mine of public opinion telling politicians that just grandstanding about tuition is no longer enough.