The Cost of College: Evergreen takes stand against Wash. State Legislators

Between covering campus life day after day and being full-time students, it is easy for student journalists to overlook a story. Gradual trends in higher education that affect student finances and the quality of their education during the course of a decade are difficult to cover, especially for a newspaper that has a completely new staff every four years. This is why The Daily Evergreen decided to take on a semester-long investigative reporting project focused on one of the biggest concerns in higher education: increasing levels of student debt.

Working in conjunction with The Spokesman-Review, the staff of The Daily Evergreen has worked to shine some light on many of the problems inherent in the state’s higher education system that lead to students being burdened with crippling levels of debt. The average level of debt for Washington graduates was almost $20,000 in 2010, according to The Project on Student Debt.

During the course of the week, The Daily Evergreen will bring you a series of investigative pieces, student profiles and opinion columns to not only open the public’s eyes to the severity of the situation but also offer solutions. This is a man-made problem. It can be fixed.

State biennial budget support for WSU has dropped $133.3 million in just the last 18 months, according to WSU President Elson S. Floyd’s office. That is a 40 percent decrease. To make up for this decrease, WSU has increased in-state tuition 30 percent during that same time, making it more and more difficult for students to earn a college degree.

However, many of these problems appeared well before the current recession. When adjusted for inflation, tuition has increased 91 percent during the last decade from $4,506 in 2000-01 to $8,592 in 2010-11, according to Evergreen reporters. At the same time, wages in Washington have remained stagnant. This lethal combination will ripple through the economy as debt-laden students delay purchases for their new car or first home.

Public universities in Washington are teetering on becoming private institutions due to the Legislature’s dismal funding of higher education. Legislators can no longer blame fiscal woes for neglecting the next generation of leaders, innovators and thinkers.

The state’s dramatic budget shortfalls could have been far less severe with simple tax remedies. The voters of Washington have routinely voted against their own interests. In November, Washingtonians voted against Initiative 1098, which would have modestly taxed individuals with an adjusted gross income of more than $200,000. This blunder will cost the state more than $2.2 billion in revenue by 2012, 70 percent of which would have gone to higher education and K-12, according to the Office of Financial Management.

Next Monday, WSU students will trek across the state for “Coug Day at the Capitol.” They will lobby state legislators, make their argument for why higher education is vital to this state and hear reassurances from the legislators. Then, they will return to Pullman and their requests will die in committee meetings because supporting education does not get politicians elected, even in college communities like Pullman.

“Coug Day at the Capitol” can no longer be a single-day event. Our voice must be heard in Olympia every single day. Students have lacked the lobbying presence that farmers, businesses and so many other industries benefit from. We cannot passively sit back and collect increasing levels of debt for a degree that is slowly losing its meaning. A more active, more informed student populace that will demand change from state legislators must emerge from this crisis.

Hopefully, The Daily Evergreen’s coverage will play a small role in putting higher education back at the top of our Legislature’s agenda.

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