Higher education can be a pathway toward racial, gender and economic justice. However, the austerity mentality has become entrenched in our public institutions of higher education after decades of underinvestment. This shows up in high levels of college debt that fall disproportionately on first generation, low income, and BIPOC students, and the heavy reliance on gig workers in academia. The human and care infrastructure package now working its way through Congress could help course correct toward a pathway of greater equity. The proposal includes tuition-free community college for all, an increase in Pell grants to help students from lower income families cover the costs of pursuing higher education (the maximum award is currently $6,495), and investments in historically Black and other minority-serving institutions (MSIs) (Washington state has 19 MSIs).
Why does this matter for Washington? Most good paying jobs and many of those in the growing industries in Washington now require a degree or certificate program beyond high school. Yet state funding of higher education in Washington has been on a decline for over two decades, which has shifted the burden of costs to students and staff in the form of increased tuition and fees, reduced services, over-reliance on part-time faculty, and increased workloads for staff. While the Workforce Education Investment Act passed by the state legislature in 2019 made a significant step toward affordability by establishing the Washington College Grant, many students can’t afford college without taking on crippling debt. The grant has a steep benefits cliff, so students in families with incomes just below or at the state median household income ($102,000 for a family of four) get only 10% of their tuition covered. Furthermore, investments are still needed in the people and programs that help students graduate, such as support staff, full-time faculty, wrap-around services, and available childcare. These investments are particularly important to meet the needs of BIPOC, first-generation, and low-income students especially as the cost-of-living continues to rise.
The Congressional Care Economy Resolution proposes full federal funding of tuition at community and technical colleges (CTCs). Tuition-free community college benefits all students, especially those currently left out by existing state and federal financial aid. Free college means students could take classes without having to seek part-time employment to pay for classes, and could chart their academic course with the confidence that they will be able to afford to complete their programs. Full-federal funding of CTC tuition would allow Washington state to funnel existing resources to cover student’s living expenses, such as rent, class materials, transportation, health care, and childcare, and also to invest in staff, faculty and the services that are critical to student success. Lastly, free community college means students will be able to get the learning, skills, and training they need to thrive without incurring student debt. The mounting student loan crisis prevents many young adults from buying their first home and making other life choices. Student debt disproportionately impacts Black graduates and their families, so debt-free college is a big win for racial equity and for addressing the racial wealth gap.
While there will still be much to do to build the higher education world we would like to see, speedy passage of these proposed investments by the federal government would make a real impact on racial equity, opportunity, and a thriving economy in Washington.
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