Universities' proposal points to need for reform

January 12, 2013 

Our state's university presidents made a bold offer last week.

They promised to freeze tuition for two years in exchange for $225 million.

The bid comes as a reaction to outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget proposal, which has a goal of flat tuition but provides no additional dollars for the state's six higher-education institutions.

The university presidents didn't take kindly to that proposal, and said that the state has decimated higher education by cutting funding and forcing tuition increases to make up the difference.

University presidents had thought they could strong-arm the state a bit because they had been given the power to set tuition rates by the Legislature a couple of years back.

But that now seems to be under question, taking some of the fire out of their threat.

Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, immediately asked another lame duck, Attorney General Rob McKenna, for an opinion on the presidents' proposal.

Given the passage of Initiative 1185 by voters last fall, there is some question over who holds the power to set tuition fees.

That initiative restored the requirement of a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to increase taxes. It also requires the same vote to increase fees, and tuition has been interpreted as a fee in past rulings.

The issue deserves another look given the passage of I-1185, McKenna wrote in his informal opinion, which has prolific initiative producer Tim Eyman doing a happy dance.

So while the issue of who has the power will apparently now be debated and re-interpreted, that still does not give our state an answer on how to put higher education funding on a sustainable and reasonable path.

It's unacceptable that university seniors in our state are paying nearly double the tuition they did as freshman. Higher education, especially that provided by state institutions, should be more affordable and accessible to all.

We can't continue to scare folks away from an education they need but could never afford.

A long-term plan is needed to right the funding model, which has been flipped on its head in recent years. More than two-thirds of the funding had been provided by the state, and the balance by students and their families. That has reversed, placing the bulk of the costs on student-paid tuition.

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said it will be difficult to find $225 million for the schools. "But can we continue to do this long-term destruction of the higher-ed system? No."

Many think the universities could tighten their belts and prevent tuition increases through cost-saving measures, rather than revenue-generating tactics. The universities will tell you they've already done all they can.

But university finances need to be a lot more transparent if the schools want to make a convincing case. It should be easy for taxpayers and lawmakers to determine how our universities are spending the public's money.

Regardless of who has the authority to determine tuition, the state needs to get a grasp on the big picture and restore the integrity of the higher education system, take a look at the mission of state-funded schools and get back to basics.

Sports and research seem to get a lot more attention than education and the students' eventual contribution to society and the economy.

A broad scope is needed to look at the six schools as a whole and, for example, look for redundancies in programs that may be better served at just one institution.

Our children are our state's future and their education and contribution to the work force is paramount to the future success of Washington.

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