The one thing the state really can't afford

The News Tribune, February 4, 2010

by Ronald R. Thomas and Loren J. Anderson

Right now in Olympia, some tough decisions are being made by our elected representatives as they try to hammer out a budget. Hard choices are in front of them, to be sure. But one choice they can’t afford to make is to tell more than 73,000 qualified young men and women that they can’t go to college. That’s one thing none of us can afford.

More than 73,000 students in our state receive need-based financial aid that enables them to attend a college or university in Washington.

Most of them also are working and receiving aid from the college they are attending, as well as grants and loans from the federal government. And they are borrowing from their family members, doing everything they can to make something of themselves and build a brighter future – for their families and for all of us, as our next community leaders.

Can our legislators really tell them, “No, you can’t”? Can we afford to let that happen?

We don’t think so. We know what a college education can do for people; it can double their earning power over the course of their lives and dramatically increase their employability and the likelihood of their becoming productive and contributing citizens. A college education gives them the skills and abilities to make a positive difference to our economy and civic life, as the entrepreneurs, teachers and professionals of tomorrow.

We also know that two critical measures on student financial assistance are on the table in Olympia that will either keep these students and others like them in college or deny them that opportunity and put them in the unemployment line.

What our legislators decide will affect not only these students, but ultimately the future prosperity of our state.

It will affect us all.

In January, Gov. Chris Gregoire unveiled a 2010 supplemental budget that would restore $780 million in services that were cut from her December proposal, which, in its shocking cost cuts, starkly revealed the depth of the financial hole facing the state.

One welcome element of the new plan is to restore funding for the State Need Grant program that helps pay the college costs of low-income students across Washington. On average, this grant makes up about a quarter of these students’ total aid.

More than three quarters of State Need Grant students have incomes less than half the state’s median family income of $39,000 for a family of four. One third are students of color.

In most of these cases, $1,000 or $2,000 from a state grant makes it possible for them to realize the dream of an education and stay in school another year. Without it, they would struggle to remain in school or, at worst, be on the street looking for jobs that don’t exist.

The vital element missing from the current budget proposal, however, is support for the State Work Study program. The new budget would suspend the partnership that enables employers to match state funds and hire 9,400 students from 55 colleges and universities to work while they are enrolled.

At our two universities alone, some 600 students count on these jobs and earn on average $3,000 to $4,000 toward their educational costs every year. Without those earnings, once again, most could not be in college.

Work study pays not only for students’ education, but also provides them with valuable work experience and an avenue for career development (or even a job) after graduation. It helps keep small businesses and nonprofits afloat by providing talented employees for less. It’s a true triple play. If the 1,000 organizations where these students work were left in the lurch, some might never offer these job opportunities again.

Without doubt, when budgets are squeezed, tough choices have to be made. The priority, common sense tells us, must be to secure the future.

That future is sitting in a college or high school classroom. And that future is not a column of numbers to cut from a budget. It’s thousands of individuals with dreams of a better life before them.

Let’s not tell Geoff and Lizzy or Justin and Drew or Tyesha and Lindsay that they have no future.

Let’s not tell them they can’t go to college in this state; that they can’t build a meaningful and productive life here.

Let’s not tell ourselves that we don’t care about our children or our own future. That’s the one thing we can’t afford.

Ronald R. Thomas is president of the University of Puget Sound. Loren J. Anderson is president of Pacific Lutheran University.