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State colleges can’t afford bargain tuition

Post by Kim Bradford on Feb. 22, 2010 at 7:42 pm |
February 23, 2010 11:18 am

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

Make no mistake: No matter what the Legislature does this year regarding funding for Washington’s public universities, students will pay a price.

State coffers simply don’t have the money to hold higher education harmless. Lawmakers must decide between sacrificing bargain tuition or educational quality.

The right choice is clear. True college opportunity depends on strong colleges. Giving top schools more leeway to price themselves will help ensure that students continue to get the classes they need and the rigor they deserve.

Without that flexibility, universities are at the mercy of the state budget – and the outlook is alarming. Students once paid a third of the cost of their education; now they pay more than half. The current $2.8 billion shortfall is likely to further the trend of declining state support.

At the same time, the state’s universities are still a relative bargain. The University of Washington ranked near the bottom of peer institutions before the Legislature approved a 14 percent tuition increase last year – and it still ranks near the bottom after the increase.

The Legislature has been understandably reluctant to relinquish tuition-setting authority. But lawmakers have in Senate Bill 6562 a unique opportunity. The legislation, which passed the Senate earlier this month and faces a key deadline in the House today, would tie tuition increases to additional financial aid for students and new accountability standards for schools.

The state’s largest universities (the new law would apply to the University of Washington, Washington State University and Western Washington University) could raise tuition a maximum of 14 percent in a given year until 2016-2017 or an annual average no greater than 9 percent compounded over 15 years.

In exchange for those hikes, the schools would have to waive some or all undergraduate tuition for households making up to $95,000. That high tuition/high financial aid model would preserve access for low- and middle-income students while ensuring that families who can pay more of their way, do.

Taxpayers also get something out of the deal: performance goals in areas such as enrollment, degree production, and retention and graduation. Schools would have to show what they are delivering for the money.

Washington’s public universities cannot wait for the economy to turn around or for the Legislature to get the state budget in shape. Topnotch academic programs take decades to build, but just a few years to dismantle.

The Legislature can’t lend much assistance this year, so it should help the universities help themselves. If the price of low tuition is a second-rate education, it’s no bargain at all.

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