Thousands of Washington state high school seniors will graduate this month into “adulthood.” What they do next will help determine how they and our state will prosper … or not.
Prosperity for these students includes having a good quality of life, full citizenship and personal agency. Prosperity from the perspective of Washington’s Business Roundtable has everything to do with filling the jobs corporate capital demands for economic vitality. The Roundtable projects that Washington employers need 70 percent of high school graduates to attain higher education degrees to meet their employment and growth demands. We are currently far underneath that goal:
55 percent of high school graduates receive no community college or university degree eight years after high school graduation.
But Microsoft and Amazon aren’t panicking. They glide along with a state tax system that excuses them from paying hundreds of millions of dollars every year in taxes, which underfunds K-12 education and higher education. They even managed to get the Legislature to exempt them from taxation for the Workforce Investment Education Fund after they lobbied for passage of the bill and claimed a great victory for funding higher education.
The solution for employment for these big guns is to simply hire people from other states and other countries, ones that actually invest in education for their people. The global corporations based in Washington state have become free riders off other governments’ public investments in education. Their bosses and retired bosses — such as Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Jeff Bezos — will reap billions whether or not local high school graduates go onto college.
So let’s focus on graduating seniors, for their own good. If they graduate from public high schools in Seattle, they are eligible for two years of tuition-free community college at North Seattle College, Seattle Central College or South Seattle College, regardless of grade point average, income, ability or country of birth. This is the “Seattle Promise” program, funded by the city of Seattle. That’s a good start.
However, if you are outside the city of Seattle or you are in Seattle and you want to return to college after several years in the workforce, this Promise does not extend to you. You might be able to get the College Grant from the state, but only if you are floating in or just above the poverty line. If you are on your own, your income needs to be less than $38,000 to get the full College Grant. If you have a family of four, your total family income must be less than $73,000 to get the full grant.
To put this in perspective, Tukwila’s minimum wage for large businesses is $18.99. So if you are on your own and work full-time, you make too much for the full College Grant. If you get a $1-an-hour raise — $2,000 more a year — you will only get about $1,100 from the College Grant program, leaving you to come up with $3,400 to meet your community college tuition. If your sights are set on the University of Washington, you will have to come up with $9,000 on your own each year, even with the grant.
For students from four-person families with incomes between $73,000 and $78,500, the College Grant provides 50 percent of tuition. Those students have to come up with more than $2,000 to meet just their annual tuition for community college and $6,000 for UW. That amount doesn’t include room and board.
The income barriers and tuition support gradations go on. For students from four-person families with incomes above $84,000, tuition support drops to $1,100 for community college. And if you’re a single child and your parents both work full-time making $23 an hour, you will get no support from the College Grant program.
Obviously, the College Grant doesn’t work at all for the majority of working- and middle-class students in our state. That’s probably why, among four-year public universities and colleges, only 34 percent of students received College Grant funding in the 2021-2022 school year. It is also one of the reasons why community college enrollment is down more than 25 percent since 2019, while four-year university enrollment has decreased 11 percent.
If the corporate capitalists in our state really want high school graduates to gain college degrees, they need to look back to the 1970s. That’s when the state really funded higher education. Former House Speaker Frank Chopp graduated from UW in 1975; his yearly tuition was $2,600 in today’s dollars. That was the equivalent of eight weeks of work at that year’s minimum wage. Current tuition is the equivalent of five months of full-time work at Seattle’s minimum wage.
We need to go back to the future and reduce tuition for all students, cutting tuition by at least 75 percent. That is what it was 40 years ago.
Of course, that will take money: about $1.5 billion a year. But isn’t that how the oligarchs should help? Rather than wring their hands about how not enough students fit into their vision of technological and corporate advancement, how about we just put in place a tax on the wealth that they have sucked up from American consumers? Sen. Noel Frame (D-Seattle) has the right idea: Tax the oligarchs’ wealth and put the money into creating an actual pathway for all residents in our state to realize their own educational goals.
That would be the American dream.
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Read more of the June 14-20, 2023 issue.