Focus funding on the student in higher education

January 27, 2013

By George S. Bridges Special to The Seattle Times

AS Olympia begins the process of wrestling with another difficult budget and the many needs in our state, changes in the classrooms of our colleges and universities offer a strategy for supporting higher education that increases access to a college education while also ensuring its affordability for Washington residents.

Among the most significant changes in college teaching over the past two decades is the shift from instruction centered on professors, the information they deliver and the content of their courses, to instruction centered on the student and what they learn and gain from their studies. This approach vastly improves the educational experiences of our students.

Just as educators have adopted student-centered approaches to teaching, the Washington state Legislature should fully embrace a student-centered perspective to funding higher education. Public four-year colleges recently offered to freeze tuition for two years in exchange for $225 million in new state funding. This plan focuses partly on students and is worth considering.

However, much greater emphasis should be placed on improving the levels of financial aid provided directly to students — particularly in the State Need Grant and College Bound Scholarship programs. The funds from these programs support talented students from low-income families, affording them access to a college education that otherwise would be unaffordable at the school of their choosing.

In a period when most family incomes have dropped and the gap between the wealthy and poor is wider than at any point in our country’s recent history, Washington’s State Need Grant opens a crucial window of opportunity for many aspiring high-school seniors with much-needed financial aid.

College Bound promises tuition and a small book allowance for low-income students who sign up in middle school, maintain good grades through middle and high school, keep out of legal trouble, and are admitted to one of Washington’s colleges or universities.

Similarly, Washington’s independent colleges and universities that are part of the Independent Colleges of Washington contribute significant financial support to thousands of needy state residents. We accomplish this partly by investing our own institutional funds in financial-aid grants to students.

Students at our colleges receive on average $14,000 per year of institutional aid independent of any state aid. On average, 31 percent of our students come from low-income families and 25 percent are the first in their families to attend college. Our classes are small, our professors work closely with students, graduation rates are high.

Finally, educating the neediest students at our schools costs the state one-sixth the cost of an education at public four-year colleges and universities.

By increasing funding for higher education directed to students and giving highest priority to strengthening the State Need Grant and College Bound programs, a college education will remain accessible and affordable to those who are most needy. By allowing students to take grants from these programs to the schools where they are most likely to thrive and succeed, more students will receive and complete an exceptional college education.

Just as a student-centered approach to higher education improves the quality of undergraduate learning, it also represents a critical pathway to increasing the affordability of postsecondary education and the likelihood that students successfully complete their undergraduate degrees.

George S. Bridges is president of Whitman College in Walla Walla. On Twitter @whitmanpres