Regents need control of tuition levels

January 31, 2010 

It's time for state lawmakers to relinquish tuition-setting authority to the boards of trustees of state colleges and universities.

The only way for four-year public universities to continue to provide a high-quality education is to give them a firm financial foundation. They don’t have that today with caps on tuition and shrinking allocation of state dollars.

Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington, says state allocations for the largest public university in Washington have been on a downhill slide for the past 10 years — during the good economic times and during today’s recession. Overall, state spending has grown 38 percent since 2001, Emmert said. While community and technical colleges have seen their state funding swell by 28 percent during the same period, the University of Washington has suffered a 12 percent cut in state funding. State allocations to its other public baccalaureate colleges and universities have been cut 3 percent. Higher education is suffering while the state funnels more money into prisons, health care and social programs, Emmert said. By the end of the 2009-2011 spending cycle he expects the university’s budget to be what it was in the early 1990s.

Emmert said UW, which has 42,000 students on its three campuses, sustained a 26 percent cut in funding in the current budget cycle — from $400 million to about $310 million. In response, the university eliminated between 900 and 1,000 positions, including 550 jobs where employees received layoff notices.

The only way to ease the effect of state budget cuts has been to raise tuition — 14 percent this year and an anticipated 14 percent next year, Emmert said. Lawmakers have set tuition caps for undergraduates, which erodes the financial base of colleges and universities.

How, with caps on tuition and fewer state dollars, are college and university presidents across this state supposed to plan for the future and meet an ever-increasing demand for admission by would-be students? It’s impossible.

TURNING STUDENTS AWAY

Emmert said that even with the tuition increases, this fall he expects to have 25,000 students seek admission to UW, which has just 5,000 freshman slots to fill. The average incoming student will have a 3.8 grade point average and a SAT score of about 1,250. That excludes thousands of promising students, Emmert said.

When the doors of our colleges and universities are slammed shut on eager students, we’ve damaged the economic future of this state.

Higher education drives the economy forward. And the truth of the matter is, students and their parents are getting an incredible bargain when they attend a public college or university in this state.

Undergraduate tuition at the University of Washington is $7,692 a year. That’s dead last among 11 peer universities across the country, which include the University of Massachusetts ($11,917 in annual tuition), UCLA ($9,436) and Rutgers ($11,886). Washington is one of just a handful of states where lawmakers retain tuition-setting authority.

To give the University of Washington and other public four-year institutions some degree of financial stability, Emmert is pushing a couple of bills in the state Legislature — bills that make sense and merit passage.

House Bill 2946 and Senate Bill 6562 give regents at baccalaureate institutions authority to set tuition — but within sensible limits.

Regents could never increase tuition by more than 14 percent. The bills impose a 10 percent average annual cap on resident undergraduate tuition increases spread over several years and the tuition at Washington’s colleges and universities could never exceed the 75th percentile tuition at peer institutions.

If Emmert’s proposal was in place today, tuition at the University of Washington could climb to a maximum of $10,387 a year.

While Emmert’s proposal promotes affordability and predictability, he has not shortchanged student access. The House and Senate bills would increase the commitment of colleges and universities to student financial aid — raising it from 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent of total tuition revenue.

Here’s a surprise — at least it was to us. Some 7,000 students at the University of Washington pay no tuition and no student fees. That’s one-quarter of the in-state undergraduates. Washington families of four with an annual income of under $60,000 qualify for the tuition and fee waiver. Family income should not be an insurmountable barrier to a college degree, and increasing the commitment to low-income families and first-generation college students is commendable.

PERFORMANCE AGREEMENTS

Emmert’s proposed legislation also requires performance agreements between the universities and the state. Tuition-setting authority is linked to outcomes such as expanding degree production in areas of critical state needs. Students and faculty members would play a role in setting those performance measures.

Emmert has a good comeback to those who say college and university regents — if granted tuition-setting authority — will reach for the sky and repeatedly raise undergraduate tuition rates.

Lawmakers gave four-year institutions tuition-setting authority for graduate students in 2003. Graduate tuition at the University of Washington is in the middle of 25 comparable universities. In other words, trustees have not abused their authority to set tuition rates.

State lawmakers can’t have it both ways. They can’t continue a 10-year trend of cutting state assistance, cap tuition and still expect the colleges and universities to deliver high-quality education to an increasing number of students. It’s time to give administrators a firm financial base by allowing regents to set tuition levels — within reasonable limits.

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