Time to look beyond tuition to balance college budgets

May 16, 2012 

We can't say the state hasn't been trying to keep higher education a viable option for Washington families.

But still, we're headed in the wrong direction -- pushing college farther out of reach for too many deserving students. Or saddling them with crippling debt.

We briefly thought the shift of costs from state taxpayers to students and their families was about over. State spending on higher education has been cut by more than half since 2008.

But faced with another $1 billion shortfall, the state Legislature managed to balance the budget without causing too much damage to higher education.

Cuts to the operating budgets of the state's public colleges and universities were held to a narrow range -- from 0.03 percent to 1.4 percent this year.

We thought we heard college administrators breath a sigh of relief, but parents or students who expected to similarly dodge the bullet got stung.

Regents at the University of Washington and Washington State University recently approved a 16 percent increase in tuition. It was not exactly news, since the higher fees were already part of a two-year budget cycle.

But we still shudder to think what might have happened if state lawmakers made deeper cuts in higher education funding this year.

As it is, resident undergraduate and graduate students at WSU will pay $1,500 more a year. That brings the bill for fees and tuition to about $11,735.

Schools aren't relying solely on tuition increases to make up for declining state funds, although it might seem that way.

Colleges have made significant spending cuts, too. In 2008, WSU announced plans to cut the number of courses it offers by 20 percent and overhaul the core course requirements for all students. Bachelor's degrees in forestry and community and rural sociology were eliminated altogether.

The state's public colleges are also forging new relationships with the private sector, a move that not only stretches state dollars but also helps align education with the business community.

The collaboration between WSU and the state's wine industry is a good example. The public/private partnership is leading to a $23 million Wine Science Center at WSU Tri-City cities. It's an innovative project that includes the city of Richland and the Port of Benton.

State taxpayers don't pay a share of higher education costs just to be nice. It's a good investment. Washington's economic future depends on providing a work force that is prepared to compete in a global market.

There is plenty to celebrate, particularly in the Tri-Cities. Columbia Basin College still makes higher education accessible to virtually anyone in the community.

WSU Tri-Cities is surpassing expectations. Enrollment has increased 45 percent over five years, reaching a record 1,553 students this academic year.

But the latest round of tuition increases makes it clear that more has to be done -- more support from the Legislature, more partnerships with business and industry and more cost control on state campuses.

About the only thing our colleges and universities don't need more of is tuition. We can't meet our state's educational needs by pricing our students out of the market.

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