Washington's higher ed caught in financial vice

The funding model for higher education is in transition, with public funding becoming the minority of the money at cash-strapped state universities as budgets are stretched ever tighter by challenging economic times.

That transition is forcing schools to find other ways to bring in dollars. And that has some folks balking in the sticker shock at the price tag of attending even a state university. Next fall, many of them plan double-digit tuition increases.

One of the largest being considered is at the University of Washington. Its proposed 20 percent tuition increase would help restore some programs that have been trimmed back or discontinued during drastic state-mandated budget cuts in recent years.

A 20 percent increase would jump undergraduate tuition from $8,700 to $10,574 beginning this fall. And while that may be a challenging for students, universities must find ways to survive and thrive so they can offer students the education they want and provide our state with the caliber of workers we need.

Although that increase sounds like a big windfall for UW, a new state law will require colleges that increase tuition beyond the state-budgeted rate to put some of that money into financial aid. UW would have to put 5 percent of it toward financial aid if it takes a 20 percent increase. That would create about $17.2 million in additional financial aid.

But the result is an almost vicious cycle. Increased tuition would help the university provide the programming students need. But the more tuition is increased, the greater the financial hardship imposed on students and the greater their need for financial aid, some of which students will provide by paying the tuition increases.

Does it all make sense? We have to wonder: How much of that 20 percent will do little more than create a bigger university bureaucracy to handle the money, to process the applications for financial aid and then to decide which students will get help? And how many more students will need the help -- and the bureaucracy -- to pay their growing tuition bills?

Admittedly, the state doesn't have to come up with as much money. But we have to wonder: How much better is this merry-go-round of dollars than finding a better way to pay for higher education?

Historically, the state's taxpayers agreed to pay for most of it. Now parents and their students are taking on more of the burden. But in an age when almost everyone who gets a good-paying job needs an education beyond high school, won't almost everyone still be paying for our public colleges and universities?

After all, universities must make ends meet and serve their customers or go out of business. In the past three years, UW's state funding decreased by 50 percent. No institution can adapt to that kind of hit without painful cuts and painful paths to new revenue.

Eliminating jobs, cutting courses and freezing salaries are among the common immediate solutions. But long term, money has to come back to the equation to reinstate hundreds of courses, faculty and staff that have been lost and to increase hours of operation for a changing student population.

Even as the costs of a college education rise, it's still a bargain over the lifespan of a career and much more rewarding than a lifetime of ignorance.