Broad, public discussion needed for state colleges

January 6, 2013 

Our state's university presidents don't like the looks of Gov. Chris Gregoire's plan for higher education.

We can't say we're surprised. But the fact that she's a lame duck makes the proposal more bluster than bite.

Regardless, Gregoire's proposal to leave tuition flat over the next two years will sound to many families like a much-needed departure from the double-digit tuition increases during the past four years.

The strategy of using tuition increases to make up for fewer state dollars for our colleges and universities during the ongoing budget crisis has about run its course.

Times have changed drastically in the world of higher education funding in the past 10 years. Seventy percent of tuition was covered by state funding a decade ago, with the balance coming from tuition. That model has been reversed in just a few short years, increasing to financial burden on students already struggling with the costs of a college education.

Despite the pain of the tuition increases, at least it was a way to off-set the reduction in state-funding. But now Gregoire is proposing a tuition freeze for two years with no alternate to make up the funding gap, putting the burden on universities to figure it out for themselves now that the state has helped make a mess of things.

Universities say they have already made all the internal cuts they can by not filling job vacancies, deferring maintenance, putting more students in each class, hiring fewer teaching assistants, cutting less popular programs and other measures.

So now the governor has recommended they don't raise tuition but hasn't given the schools any tools or assistance to find a way to off-set two years of flat income. We need a better plan.

The universities still have the authority to raise tuition if they must, but nobody really wants that. The last thing we need to do is discourage folks from getting a college degree. Too many are already priced out of the market with the tuition increases of recent years.

In 2012, tuition and fees at Washington State University were $11,735. Just four short years ago, that fee was only $6,218. That's a big jump in fees that have already priced deserving students out of the market for a higher education.

To put it in perspective as one UW student leader did, seniors are paying double what they did as freshman for tuition. That's unacceptable.

Our state already has a deficit of workers in high-tech fields, with our own big corporations lobbying the federal government for more foreign worker visas to fill the void.

The relentless increases in tuition at our four-year institutions will do nothing but exacerbate the problem.

Another way to stem to costs at universities would be to cap enrollment, but that would put higher education out of reach for even more students.

It's clear that continuing on the same path can't fix the state's higher education system. Right now, the Legislature's approach looks more like crisis management than thoughtful policy.

Washington needs a master plan for higher education. Saying that makes us cringe a bit, because it will mean a task force and years of meetings and debate.

But there are no easy answers.

Our leaders need to take a broad look at all six of our state's four-year universities and at the community college system.

Are there ways to consolidate services? How could they work together to make a more efficient system, rather than compete for students seeking the same goals?

If tuition costs drive some students to community colleges for the first two years, how do we make sure they can transfer seamlessly to the next level? If these schools can raise millions and millions of dollars for athletics, can there be some lessons learned that can be applied to academics?

We don't envy the position of the university presidents. The House and Senate will chime in with their budgets later this month, as will incoming Gov. Jay Inslee.

WSU President Elson Floyd summed it up best: "Over the past year, we've witnesses a growing recognition in Olympia that we've cut higher education too deeply, weakening opportunities for students and the economy. Now is the time to reinvest."

But ensuring that our investment reaps adequate dividends will take more than writing a blank check.

Without a public process that produces clear goals, a plan for achieving them and metrics for measuring progress, there is not much hope for curbing the soaring costs of a college education.

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