Legislature should review higher education, government pay

Washington's college and university presidents traditionally have been among the highest paid employees in the state, the thought being they raise millions for their schools, so paying them well is worth it.

Nobody is arguing they don't deserve a substantial salary, but in this current, dismal economic climate, the Legislature ought to take a second look at just how much university presidents are making -- especially since students this year are facing significant tuition increases at the same time colleges are cutting programs and staff.

The Office of Financial Management recently released a report on the gross pay state employees earned in 2010. It revealed a significant gap between higher education officials and other state employees.

As an example, Washington State University Tri-Cities Chancellor Vicky Carwein earned $221,633 in 2010 and Columbia Basin College President Rich Cummins earned $203,100. Not far from home, Eastern Washington University President Rodolfo Arevalo earned $238,739 and Washington State University President Elson Floyd earned $625,000.

Meanwhile, the state's best-paid elected official, Gov. Chris Gregoire, earned $166,891.

The discrepancy is tough to accept, especially for students and parents trying to figure out how to pay for college.

Washington's higher education system is suffering. There's no doubt about it. Colleges have been forced to make repeated cuts for several years and this last round seemed particularly painful. Qualified students are being turned away more often than ever. University of Washington officials made the unprecedented decision this year to decrease the number of in-state students they will admit in order to increase the number of out-of-state students who pay substantially more in tuition.

This, of course, caused a domino effect which led more Washington state kids scrambling to get into other in-state schools. This year's freshman class at Washington State University is its largest ever.

In addition to tighter standards, Gregoire signed a bill this spring allowing universities to set their own tuition without state approval.

That meant a 16 percent tuition hike at Washington State University, while the University of Washington increased its tuition by 20 percent.

The cost of a higher education was high to begin with. At some point, tuition costs will put a college degree beyond the reach of most students.

Yes, financial aid helps many students stay in school, but demand will continue to outpace state and private money available for scholarships. In fall 2009, for example, there were 119 applications for WSU scholarships at WSU Tri-Cities. This year there are 535 applications. Also, federal applications for federal student aid (FAFSA) have shot up by 57 percent in the past three years.

The Legislature should review state salaries and determine if indeed, college administrators should routinely earn more than the state's governor. It also should look at the top salaries of state officials in general.

State employees have taken hits already, and it's tough to ask the rank-and-file to sacrifice more. The salary scale for higher-end officials is due for additional review, however.

Ideally, the issue would be addressed nationally, so Washington could continue to attract highly skilled people and not lose them to other states that might pay more.

But something has to be done to make higher education more affordable. Washington needs its young talent to help boost the economy in the future.

Paying college administrators exorbitant salaries while students are finding it increasingly tougher to afford college just doesn't make sense.