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Originally published Friday, January 18, 2013 at 4:00 PM

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Editorial notebook: Pulling the welcome mat on a college education

A summer working in the Alaska fishing industry used to be enough to pay a year’s college tuition. But the middle-class welcome mat to the state’s elite universities is increasingly threadbare.

Seattle Times Editorial

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In my part of the world (San Diego), things look remarkably similar to what Jonathan is... MORE
Cost of instruction at WA colleges and universities has grown pretty much with inflatio... MORE
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I see a glass of V-8 juice, and I flash back to fish guts.

During a formative post-high school summer on the Kenai Peninsula, my job required standing hip deep in the bowels of an Alaskan fishing vessel, a tomato-red soupy broth of fish guts and seawater splashing my face, as I chucked salmon the size of bread loaves topside.

I went to Alaska on a lark, but came home with a fistful of fish-scented bucks. In two months, I earned enough for a year’s tuition — at $2,253 in 1992-1993 — at the University of Washington.

Access to affordable, elite public universities has been one of the great social levelers of post World War II America. Starting with the G.I. Bill, smart, driven young people — regardless of circumstance — could reach for a degree and the fresh imprint of upward social mobility.

The state Legislature has unraveled that wise public policy over the past decade. In 2002-03, UW tuition was $4,632. Double-digit tuition increases in each of the past four years boosted it to $12,383 this year, plus room and board.

The consequence is obvious. UW graduates in the class of 2011 carry, on average, student-loan debt of $20,608, according to a survey by the Institute for College Access and Success. Washington State University grads have it worse: $22,686.

And I fear the hidden consequence of this unconscionable debt burden — that the next generation of excellent teachers, social workers or even journalists will shun public service and opt for high-wage careers.

My 10-year-old son, Noah, envisions his future studying graphic art at the UW. But the jacked-up tuition assures me that he will find no summer job — no means to my fish-scented bucks — that will come close to paying the tuition bill.

The state’s answer, until this year, was the Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program, allowing middle-class working stiffs like me to buy years of college tuition in advance. Private college investment accounts had nowhere near the return; we bought a few years worth.

The program was too good to be true: The tuition increases have currently rendered it insolvent. It now appears to be ending. I understand why.

But the middle-class welcome mat to the state’s elite universities is threadbare. That roils my stomach worse than a glass of V-8.

Jonathan Martin

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