Include private schools in college funding debate

The Olympian, January 29, 2011
Ronald R. Thomas, guest columnist

The most important step in any journey is the first one. In our quest to find adequate higher education funding for our state, we have started the search by running pretty fast in the wrong direction.

Our first step should be to ask, “How can we best provide an outstanding education for all the citizens in our state?” Instead, a recent Associated Press story has lawmakers and university officials saying that Washington parents concerned about rising tuition “should turn their focus instead to the question of whether their kids will even get into a state university” (Lawmakers worry about college slots, Jan. 21). That approach won’t take us to where we need to go.

To create a culture of educated, thinking, innovative citizens for our state, we should look at the big picture and aim straight for the goal: deploying all the resources we have, public and private, to offer a broad range of high-quality educational opportunities that will equip young people for successful lives and careers and, ultimately, generate a thriving state economy of informed and engaged citizens.

Yet the debate about higher education policy and funding in Washington often inexplicably bypasses the substantial contributions of private colleges and the bargain they represent for our citizens. The 10 members of Independent Colleges of Washington enroll nearly 40,000 students and confer about a quarter of the baccalaureate and higher degrees earned in Washington each year. Private colleges do this while receiving less than 2 percent of the state’s higher education budget, money that goes directly to the students in the form of financial aid.

For many students, a private college is as affordable as (or more affordable than) a public university. Nearly 90 percent of our students at Puget Sound receive financial aid from our operating budget, for example, in addition to the other scholarships they bring with them. This year alone, Washington’s 10 private colleges have budgeted more than $275 million for grants and scholarships for qualifying students—students who usually complete their degrees faster and more often than at public institutions and, for many of them, at a lower cost.

Yet, there is no inkling that the governor’s recent task force on higher education funding gave any consideration to leveraging the benefits of our independent colleges. Not a word in the report encourages more of the collaborative work between private and public colleges that we have recently begun to see in our state. The proposed billion-dollar private scholarship fund mysteriously excludes students who wish to go to private colleges.

A fiscal crisis like the one we are in provides the best opportunity for all of us to sit down and work together on challenges that affect us all. The task force missed that chance. Hopefully the legislators who consider the issue of where we go from here will be more far-sighted.

Make no mistake: Strong, academically rigorous, and adequately funded community colleges and public baccalaureate institutions are vitally important. State funding cuts at these institutions are painful to see and make the future dimmer for all of us. But higher tuition at public institutions (as some propose) is not necessarily a barrier to students from low- and middle-income families — if the state and the colleges maintain their commitment to need-based financial aid.

In short, we should not worry so much about where students go to college. Instead, we should focus on how to foster a broad-based, high-quality network of public and private colleges that opens every avenue for our most talented and our most vulnerable students to arrive at the best choice for their own education. Without it, they, and we, will get nowhere fast.