Task force plan shifts cost to students

Washington families and students would pay a higher share for a college education, if the Legislature were to follow the lead of a governor's task force, but lawmakers showed little desire for the plan Tuesday.

Gov. Chris Gregoire's 16-member task force, which included two Tri-City members, had been charged with three objectives -- find ways to pay for the state's universities, ensure taxpayers and students get what they pay for and explore whether the state's university system ought to be governed differently.

The group altogether abandoned the governance objective to focus on financial issues.

The group's report was released this week and included four recommendations:

* Increase the number of bachelor's degrees awarded in the state so that there would be 6,000 more annually in 2018 than this year. Out of these, award a higher share of degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and get more minority students to graduate.

* Give universities the power to set their own tuition rates. Currently, the Legislature determines how much students pay. But under the group's proposal, if state funding drops to below 2011 levels, universities could raise tuition until their per-student income is just better than that of 60 percent of comparable universities around the country. When state contributions go up in better times, tuition goes back down.

* To offset the likely tuition hikes, establish a scholarship fund of $1 billion from private donations over the next 10 years to help low and middle-income students. Donors to the fund could claim a tax break once state tax collections are 10 percent above 2008 levels -- but not before 2014.

* Increase efficiency in universities, particularly by eliminating little-used courses, creating incentives for students to take exactly the courses they need for their intended degree and launching three-year bachelor's programs.

The solutions are what's "realistic for the times we're in," said Paul Rosier, a member of the task force. Rosier was the K-12 representative on the panel. He is a former superintendent of the Kennewick School District and current executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators.

Another Tri-Citian on the task force, Mike Kluse, senior vice president of Battelle and lab director of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

The proposal probably would mean higher tuition rates for the next four to five years, Rosier said, before the state could contribute at levels high enough to bring students' contributions back down.

That's why the group put the scholarship program in the proposal, he said. Donations to foundations typically go down during economically tough times, but several business leaders in the group said raising $1 billion for scholarships is feasible, Rosier said.

Recommending that the state give the universities more money to raise graduation numbers was a non-starter, he said. "If we had proposed that, it'd have been DOA," Rosier said.

It still will be dead on arrival if the new ranking minority member of the House Committee on Higher Education has anything to do with it.

"I'm drawing a line in the sand on giving tuition authority to (university) presidents," said Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland. "We should never give away any fiduciary responsibility, particularly not on a constitutional directive such as education," he said.

He also objected to using other colleges' tuition rates as a guide for Washington universities as it likely would lead to escalation in prices, as one raise triggers another.

Haler's party doesn't call the shots on the committee, but that doesn't mean the governor's party automatically will pass a bill that includes giving up control over tuition.

"It's an option we could consider," said Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett. "But that could easily not be the consensus among Democratic committee members."

Sells and Haler were members of the House committee when it shot down a similar proposal -- SB 6562 -- almost a year ago. The bill gave universities control over tuition within tightly set boundaries -- no more than 14 percent raises per year and no more than 10 percent average annual raises over five years, said Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, who sponsored it.

That bill passed the Senate but didn't make it out of the House committee.

If legislators pick up the task force's recommendations to draft a bill, they certainly would have to spell out limits on tuition increases for any such bill to have a chance, Kilmer said.

It might have more of a chance this year, with budgets as tight as they are. Legislators who don't have money to give out must give up some control, Sells said.

But the lack of specifics in the report frustrated Sells. "It's long on intent and short on details," he said.

For the universities, the question will be how to churn out more graduates without getting more money for their instruction. The state's higher ed system already is running at capacity, said Dick Pratt, vice chancellor for academic affairs at Washington State University Tri-Cities in Richland.

"To have a substantial increase in bachelor's degrees, the state needs to provide supplemental funding," Pratt said. "It essentially means hiring more faculty and possibly building more classrooms and labs."

The report mentions increasing universities' efficiency, but that's what higher ed's been doing for the past two or three years as budgets shrank, Pratt said.

And a couple of the proposals in the report wouldn't make any difference because they already are in place. Courses that don't attract enough students are regularly eliminated, Pratt said. And universities already are accountable for their graduation and retention rates -- to regional accreditors.

The suggestion to introduce three-year bachelor's programs is highly controversial, Pratt said. Universities are not likely to reduce their graduation requirements to speed up getting a degree.

The recommendation at the center of the report comes down to a policy question with philosophical implications, Pratt said.

"Essentially, we'd be shifting more and more responsibility to families to pay for higher education," he said. "We have to ask ourselves if we consider higher education a public good that benefits all of society."

The governor's task force, which met six times, operated at zero cost to taxpayers, said Karina Shagren, a spokeswoman at the governor's office. Members volunteered their time, donated office space and received no compensation for expenses, she said.