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Give campuses a freer hand

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Among the latest round of budget cuts proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire is a $90 million hit for state colleges and universities. That’s on top of the larger whack taken out of higher education last year, mitigated by a nearly 30 percent increase in tuition over two years.
Hard realities are facing state legislators in this budget crisis, and the dysfunctional system of higher education funding is one they must address. A brighter economic future for our state depends on its universities being the best they can be, producing skilled graduates and sparking innovation.
Some pertinent facts:
n The University of Washington says it lost 26 percent of its state funding last year. With the next state budget already swimming in red ink, those cuts aren’t likely to be restored out of the general fund anytime soon.
n Washington ranks a bewildering 48th in the nation in the percentage of residents attending a state four-year campus as undergraduate students. Part of that has to do with the state’s relatively high participation at public two-year colleges (we rank fifth), but it means that too many higher-income jobs in Washington that demand a four-year degree are going to out-of-state graduates.
n Washington ranks 46th nationally in total funding per full-time college student, when combining the share paid by the state and the student. State support and tuition are both well below the national average.
One solution lawmakers should adopt this year is to give state universities what they’ve sought for years: greater flexibility in setting their own tuition rates.
Until 1999, the Legislature set undergraduate tuition for all state colleges and universities. Since then, they’ve had limited tuition-setting authority. University presidents would prefer a free hand, as they have with out-of-state and graduate tuition, and Gregoire called for giving them “tuition flexibility” in her State of the State address last week.
A good bill proposed by Senate Higher Education & Workforce Development Committee Chairman Derek Kilmer (D-Gig Harbor) would allow them to raise tuition up to 14 percent in a given year. “To me, universities understand their pricing structures and their budgets better than politicians in Olympia,” Kilmer said.
Kilmer seeks to protect affordability by holding tuition increases to a 15-year annual average of 10 percent, and directing more of the revenue raised to financial aid. Universities would also have to keep tuition in line with peer institutions, and meet performance requirements in order to keep their tuition authority.
The continuing lack of adequate state support has created a perverse incentive for universities to seek more students from out of state, since they bring more tuition money with them. That’s nuts, and Kilmer’s bill would help fix the problem.
Undergraduate tuition in Washington is still a relative bargain compared with most states. To maintain high quality at Washington’s universities, giving them greater authority to decide what they charge is prudent and justified.

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