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Originally published Monday, March 7, 2011 at 5:07 PM

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Guest columnist

Washington Legislature is closing budget gap with student debt

Guest columnist and college senior Logan Bahr argues that the state Legislature is closing its budget gap on the backs of students, who are having to take on more debt to pay higher tuition.

Special to The Times

College is a taxing business.

Lectures, midterms, and finals must be complemented by volunteer work, internships, research and professional development. Students know that in order to be competitive we have to compete with the global economy. That's neither hyperbole nor lament; it's a reality we embrace!

We know with adequate skills and education the possibility to make a significant impact on the world is closer than ever before. So to cobble together enough money to pay tuition, we take out student loans, work when we're not studying, or even drop out to make money so that we can return and finish.

Unfortunately, at a time when a college education has never been more important, Olympia's understanding of an appropriate use of tuition has fundamentally changed. The money students pay for their education is no longer considered a fee paid to a school for instruction. Now students and their families are considered a "revenue source," a phrase normally reserved for taxes. Those are policymakers' words, not mine.

It should be widely known that tuition has risen 130 percent in the last 10 years. Today's higher tuition rates are the result of economic decline and revenue shortfalls. Cutting higher education seemed like an easy solution. It's a fairly large portion of the budget, it's not an entitlement, and it's constitutionally unprotected. Budget writers estimated a tuition increase and then took that amount — and more — out of universities' state funding.

What's more troubling is the new practice of distributing tuition dollars paid to university accounts for services once paid for out of the state General Fund. For example, the 2011 supplemental budget cuts the State Need Grant by $25 million. Those state funds went back into the General Fund to pay for a variety of things that have nothing to do with higher education. The Legislature then took an unprecedented step and replaced the funds with money from each college's tuition accounts.

It's a scary thought that tuition is simply another revenue source to be used for whatever state service is deemed needy; perhaps paying for a park or a prison.

State tuition practice violates an even more basic economic rule: solving a short-term shortfall with long-term loans. Slashing university budgets means state savings and higher tuition. Those savings are enabled, in large part, by students accruing more high-interest, long-term loans that will be paid off long after graduation. In other words, the state is indirectly closing its budget gap with student debt.

Students and families are now the majority funders of Washington's universities. But privatization of public higher education is not the answer to the current crisis.

The public higher education system should be a paramount concern and public governance must be maintained.

But, if the state is unwilling or unable to fund public higher education and, accordingly, if tuition must rise, then students should be assured that those funds will not be used as a state "revenue stream," but as a fee paid to a university for educational services rendered.

Students realize the challenges brought on by globalization and see the extraordinary opportunity to excel. We embrace this new landscape with cautious optimism.

What we cannot embrace is the philosophy that students are simply a revenue source used to pay for anything in the state budget.

Tacoma native Logan Bahr is a senior at Central Washington University and a student member of the CWU Board of Trustees.

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