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Let state colleges raise tuition AND financial aid

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Feb. 4, 2010 at 7:49 pm |
February 4, 2010 5:27 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Washington’s public universities can offer low tuition, excellent education and ample financial aid. The problem is, they can’t offer all three at the same time – not now, not during this revenue crisis.

One of the three has to give. It ought to be the bargain tuition the system has traditionally charged all comers, including students from the state’s wealthiest families.

State Sen. Derek Kilmer, the Gig Harbor Democrat who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, has the right approach: a bill that would give the universities more leeway in raising tuition while demanding that they offer generous financial assistance to the needy and much of the middle class.

With the Legislature giving higher education an ever-diminishing share of the state operating budget – and with the present fiscal crisis threatening to make things far worse – Senate Bill 6562 has become a necessity.

Historically, lawmakers have insisted on setting tuition rates themselves. They have followed a one-size-fits-all philosophy: The University of Washington and Washington State Universities were priced identically, and the “regional” schools, such as Central Washington University, were also priced identically.

No allowance was made for differing demand for admittance, and the rates were kept exceptionally low compared to public colleges in many other states. Even the UW’s seemingly high tuition and fees – $7,692 this year – is far below the average of comparable universities elsewhere.

Low across-the-board tuition is wonderful if the value of the diploma isn’t compromised. But state universities can’t provide both quality programs and bargain rates unless the Legislature funds the system generously. That stopped happening some time back. Twenty years ago, the state was chipping in $2 for every $1 a student paid in tuition. Today, the state pays less than the student.

Low tuition plus low subsidies adds up to serious trouble. To make ends meet as funding declines, schools will have no choice but to eliminate courses and hold down pay for academic talent. A tipping point arrives, stellar professors and researchers start leaving, and the whole higher education system gets a bad reputation. It’s happened elsewhere – Oregon, for example – and it doesn’t look pretty.

Unless the Legislature plans to ratchet up its subsidies, which is impossible right now, it must give Washington universities the freedom to operate on a high tuition/high financial aid model. SB 6562, as approved by Kilmer’s committee Wednesday, embodies this approach. It would let schools raise their own tuition rates within limits – a maximum of 14 percent in a given year, with an annual average no greater than 9 percent.

Those are big numbers, but they’d come with a legal obligation to assist families far above the poverty line. Under SB 6562, even a household with an annual income of $95,000 would be eligible for some help.

The numbers in the bill may need adjusting, but the central idea – letting tuition and assistance rise, and preserving quality – is the only obvious way to protect college opportunity in this state.
Unless lawmakers have a better plan – and ignoring the problem doesn’t count as one – they shouldn’t stand in the way of this bill.

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