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What Sen. Kilmer is telling students

Post by Maks Goldenshteyn on Feb. 17, 2010 at 11:29 am |
February 17, 2010 12:08 pm

Sen. Derek Kilmer‘s proposal to allow universities to set tuition has certainly ruffled a few feathers.

The state Senate voted to give the state’s three largest universities the authority to set tuition on Monday night. The bill now  goes before the House.

Below is the message Kilmer is relaying to those who’ve contacted him about it:

Thanks for your message. I appreciate you taking the time to write and share your thoughts regarding the Higher Education Access & Accountability Act

To me, it’s important to set this bill into context. I come to this discussion with three elements that frame my point of view.

First, we are in the midst of the great recession. If we are going to get this economy moving, we’ve got to ensure that our universities are part of the solution. They need to be the best they can be.

Second, for far too long, the legislature has treated higher education funding as a rainy day fund. Every time the state budget takes a nose dive, higher education budgets get whacked and tuition goes through the roof. Everyone – on every side of this issue – agrees that the current model is broken.

Third, I come to this issue with some personal background – as perhaps the only member of the State Senate still paying off his student loans . . . and as the dad of two little girls. I want – for them and for all students – a brighter future. I want for my little girls and for all students — an affordable education. We should demand that the door to further education should not be closed based on a family’s income.

To me, those elements frame the conversation around tuition policy that the legislature has been having. Given the perils of the current approach, it is clear to folks on all sides of this issue that the state needs to change the way it’s approaching higher education. That change needs to be predicated on three key principles.

1. Quality
I came to the legislature to fight for good jobs and a good education system. I am pained that the state has consistently cut higher education. It’s why I fight each and every day to protect higher education funding – to ensure that we uphold our obligation to fund financial aid and to preserve the quality of our state higher education institutions.

But as I mentioned above, the trend line isn’t pretty. Higher education is consistently being crowded out by other state needs. It’s crowded out due to our constitutional obligation to fund K-12 education. It’s crowded out because the demand for social services (including health and mental health services) has risen. It’s crowded out by mandates from the federal government. That’s certainly frustrating for those of us who believe that higher education is enormously important. However, that is the reality we are in.

With the status quo, state appropriations to our institutions of higher education have been dropping – nearly 25% last year alone – while tuition has been increasing. If anyone could actually say that the trend line will change – that the state will start, on a long-term and sustainable basis, putting more money into higher education – then I’m not sure we’d be having this conversation this year. But no one is saying that.

To maintain quality even during these difficult budget times, our universities need to be able to budget. Currently, there’s no predictability on either side of the revenue ledger – neither the appropriation provided from the state nor the tuition raised. This makes Washington one of only three states in the nation that has the legislature set tuition.

Giving universities a say regarding tuition isn’t unreasonable to me. Universities know their budgets, their markets, and their students better than politicians in Olympia do. Particularly if it enables them to preserve quality better.

I want for my daughters and for all students in our state a quality education. I don’t want people to invest money in an education that’s second rate. I don’t want students to pay to go to a college with fewer class offerings, bigger classes, fewer student services. I don’t want students to have to spend an extra quarter or year in college because of budget cuts.

I don’t want students to invest money in an education that’s second-rate only to see their job go to someone from out of state. Let’s be clear – that’s why the Seattle Chamber, the Washington Business Roundtable, Snohomish County Economic Development Council, the Executive Council for a Greater Tacoma, the Boeing Company, and other business leaders from around the state testified in support of this bill. They don’t want to end up having to hire people from out of state because Washington students have gotten a second rate education.

So part of the rationale for this bill is the desire to preserve quality.

2. Accountability
We’ve got to move from a discussion on inputs to one based on outcomes. Our state has a higher education master plan that lays out some key outcomes that we need to buy to pave the way for a brighter future.

As a consequence, one of the key elements in this bill is that, in exchange for tuition flexibility, the higher education institutions must provide complete a performance agreement with the state to help us drive to the goals laid out in the master plan. Those performance agreements must include outcomes concern cost, quality, timeliness of student progress toward degrees and certifications; recruitment, retention, and success of students, faculty, and staff from low-income, diverse, or underrepresented communities; and benchmarks and goals for long-term degree production including discrete benchmarks and goals in areas of high demand and critical state need.

This is a game-changer. It means that rather than providing a diminishing appropriation to state universities and praying for positive outcomes, we can move toward a system that can hold the universities – and the legislature – accountable.

3. Affordability
This is perhaps the most important piece. As Chair of the Senate Higher Education & Workforce Development Committee, I agreed to hear four different bills regarding tuition setting. Two of those proposals called for unfettered tuition setting authority by the institutions with no limitations. That’s now what I’ve proposed or what the Senate agreed to.

I believe that some limitations are important as a means of protecting middle class and poorer students. As a result, the bill that we passed out of the Senate provides some restraints on tuition increases. The bill dictates that tuition may not rise by more than 9% on an average annual basis over a 15 year period.

As context, with the legislature setting tuition, tuition has risen 9.2% over the past 10 years. In addition, because the institutions may likely not max out their authority each and every year, we limit increases in any given year to no more than 14%. Further, to ensure that Washington doesn’t fall out of line with other states, tuition at these three institutions may never exceed the 75th percentile of the tuition in relation to their peer institutions.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this bill lays out a new form of discounting so that as tuition rises as a percentage of median family incomes, institutions are required to waive tuition for larger groups of students. This means that the state will finally begin to provide protections to middle class families who have been increasingly squeezed under the current approach.

To me, this bill represents progress for students and their families because it provides more predictability and affordability in tuition. And it also works to preserve quality and accountability so that their money (and the money of taxpayers) doesn’t go to provide a second-rate education.

The bill passed out of the State Senate with bipartisan support, and it now goes over to the State House for its consideration. Certainly, the passage of the bill out of the Senate isn’t the end of the discussion, and my hope is that students and their families will continue to be involved and engaged.

Nearly two and a half centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “An investment in knowledge pays the greatest interest.” Please know that I’ll continue to fight to ensure that students can get a quality and affordable education.
Best,
Derek Kilmer

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