State schools need higher tuition to offset budget shortfalls

March 1, 2011 

Budget proposals circulating the Capitol Campus have college and university presidents in fear of deeper cuts to higher education. Parents and students must pay attention to the debate, because cuts in state funding are likely to result in sharp increases in tuition - perhaps as much as a 30 percent increase a single year.

This state’s higher education institutions have been hard-hit by the economic recession. Randy Hodgins, the University of Washington’s vice president for external affairs, said budget cuts under consideration in Olympia could result in the university receiving less than $300 million a year in state funding. That would mean the university would have lost half its state funding in three years.

Let us say that again. The University of Washington is looking at budgets that would have the cumulative effect of cutting state funding to the university in half in just three short years.

That makes it difficult to serve the 40,000 students enrolled at the university, interim President Phyllis M. Wise told The Olympian’s editorial board recently. She foresees spikes in student tuition, fewer undergraduate slots for in-state students and increasing demand for tuition assistance. Her goal, in analyzing every university program, is to emerge from the recession stronger than ever and still have the U-Dub considered one of the preeminent public research institutions in the nation.

Public colleges and universities – which have seen a steady decline in state funding since the early 1990s – have sent a simple message to state lawmakers: If you are going to cut state funding even further, then please give colleges and university regents and trustees the flexibility to make up that loss in revenue by increasing tuition.

It’s a message lawmakers must embrace if we’re going to keep the doors to this state’s public institutions open to state students.

That’s not to say colleges and universities can’t or won’t make program cuts. They will. Wise said her deans, working in conjunction with faculty and more than 20 focus groups, have helped identify a way forward through the economic recession.

Wise said deans are looking at every single program at the University of Washington and asking three questions:

 • Is the program excellent?

 • Is the program essential to the long-term goals of the university?

 • Is the program affordable?

Those programs that don’t measure up on all three fronts will be the first to be merged or eliminated, Wise said.

But with talk of budget cuts of 20 percent and the possibility of a corresponding 20 percent increase in tuition, middle-class families are asking themselves whether they can afford to send their child to a college or university in this state.

Truth be told, tuition in this state is not outrageous. An in-state undergrad at the University of Washington pays $8,698 annually in tuition and costs, Wise said. That’s at the low end of the university’s nine peer institutions – known as “global challenge states” – such as the University of Massachusetts ($12,000), UCLA ($11,865), and the University of Virginia ($10,896).

Out-of-state undergraduates at the University of Washington pay about $25,000 a year, Wise said.

The natural temptation, then, is to accept more out-of-state students and restrict the number of slots for Washington students. That policy, however, goes against public beliefs that public colleges and universities should serve local students, whose parents pay taxes in this state.

It will be up to the Legislature to find the way forward – weighing higher education funding against K-12 demands, prisons, social services, public safety, the environment and the myriad of state-supported programs spread across this state. With a $4.6 billion budget shortfall it truly is higher education versus widows and orphans.

Lawmakers are wisely gravitating toward more flexible tuition. Several options were offered at the beginning of the session ranging from granting tuition authority to regents and trustees to using tuition to fill the state funding gap. The legislation is still being worked.

As distasteful as the bills might be to students and their parents – the original legislation acknowledges that the state is not funding higher education at an appropriate level and if they hope to continue to serve as public institutions, colleges and universities need flexibility to make up budget shortfalls with higher tuition.

It’s not ideal, but it is fair and equitable.

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