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It's time to start reinvesting in higher education

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The future of higher education in this state is in serious doubt, with the Legislature essentially abandoning the cause of an affordable system that provides opportunity for all.

One bright spot is the leadership of the Student Achievement Council, headed up by Dr. Gene Sharratt, the former head of the North Central Educational Service District. The council is charged with improving educational achievement and attainment from early learning all the way to post-secondary education. Sharratt, who stopped by to chat recently, described the goal as developing a cohesive system of education rather than the piecemeal approach that previously existed when the agency was the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

What worries him most these days is the affordability of higher education. The legislature, under financial pressure, has in recent years cut funding drastically to the college system, which have been offset by skyrocketing tuition costs. This has put degrees out of reach for many while others have had to take on significant debt, which is pretty risky when the economic recovery is agonizingly slow and jobs are scarce.  The result has been that the middle class and low income folks have been priced out of higher education.

The numbers don't lie. Our state ranks an abysmal 47th in the nation in participation in undergraduate education and 48th in participation in graduate degrees. In terms of student funding for higher education, we're 49th out of 50 states. If we don't find a way to reinvest in higher education, our future economic prospects will be bleak.

The gorilla in the room as far as the budget goes is the Supreme Court's McCleary decision,which requires significantly greater investment in K-12 education. It is estimated that over the next two bienniums, the Legislature will have to set aside an additional $5 billion to fully fund education.

Meanwhile, state revenue collections are at historically low levels and heading lower, as a percentage of personal income in this state. This ratio peaked at about 8 percent in the 1990s and is now at about 5 percent. At the same time, demand for services for long-term care, medical assistance, temporary assistance for needy families  has kept growing.

It's going to take courage, vision and a long-term perspective from legislators to meet these colliding realities — dramatically higher costs driven by population growth, the McCleary decision, etc. and declining revenue as a percentage of personal income.

Fortunately, some positive steps have been made in the past year. The Legislature in 2013 eliminated tuition increases for the first time in more than two decades. That's a good place to start.

The Student Achievement Council recently released a road map for success that includes practical, achievable goals that incrementally address our higher education disaster.

The legislative priorities for the 2014 session are modest.  They are urging the Legislature to fully fund the College Bound Scholarship program, a powerful initiative that allows low income 8th grade students to sign up for college funding that requires they keep up their grades and stay out of trouble. "It's a phenomenal goal for our students," Sharratt said, adding that there is strong support for  funding that goal.

The second priority, increasing support by $16 million to the Need Grant Program, also deserves full support. There is a growing gap in demand for these grants and the money to pay for them. The $16 million would be a modest step forward.

It will require a long-term perspective and a lot of political courage to meet the challenges ahead for higher education and for basic human services. In the end, we need to ask ourselves if we are willing to accept a future that puts us perpetually at a disadvantage in terms of economic growth. Education is the surest way we can drive long-term economic growth, but we're treating higher education as a cost not an investment.

What will it take for us to do what's right for the next generation?