FOR THE RECORD: (February 5, 1995): Tuition at state colleges has more than doubled in the last decade. A headline in Sunday’s newspaper was inaccurate.
By the time the Legislature adjourns, the state’s public colleges and universities may be headed down a very different road than the one they’ve followed for 20 years.
That’s OK, say many higher education officials and lawmakers: The system is headed for a crash.
New limits on state spending are colliding with a coming boom in the college-age population, threatening to overwhelm a system already squeezed by years of budget cuts.
Some lawmakers say the state should give universities power over their own fates by granting them the authority to set tuition rates.
Critics argue that’s a copout. They say the state just needs to stop robbing higher education to pay for prisons and social services.
If the state doesn’t do something, some fear public colleges will either become crowded, low-quality degree factories, or an elite sanctuary for those who can pay their own way.
At the core of higher education’s woes is a steadily shrinking slice of the state budget. In the early 1970s, about 20 percent of the state’s general fund went to higher education. That has dropped to 11.5 percent for the current biennium.
Some would take that even lower.
Gov. Mike Lowry’s budget proposal, for example, would drop higher education’s budget share to 10.4 percent.
Meanwhile, the percentage of state spending for prisons and social services is climbing, from 26 percent in the early 1980s to 30 percent now.
Part of higher education’s problems stems from much of the budget being shielded from cuts by the state constitution or federal requirements.
The largest portion goes to constitutionally protected K-12 education, which accounted for nearly half of general fund spending, or $7.7 billion last biennium.
When times are tough, higher education is often the first to feel the pain.
“Everyone seems to be willing to acknowledge the benefits of higher education … but it’s easier not to fund than the rest of the budget,” says Dan Keller, associate director of finance for the Higher Education Coordinating Board, which advises the Legislature on higher education issues.
Getting less of the dollar pie, combined with enrollment caps in effect until 1993, have fueled what some lawmakers say is an access crisis in higher education.
According to 1992 figures, the most recent available, Washington ranks last among the states in the percentage of people age 17 and older enrolled in public four-year colleges, according to the state budget office.
The state fares better when community colleges and private schools are included, ranking 32nd in the nation. But that’s down from 27th in 1991.
As if that weren’t bad enough, demand for desks in state colleges will skyrocket over the next decade, as the children of the baby boomers graduate from high school.
The primary college age group, 17- to 22-year-olds, will jump by 7,500 people in 1997. Even stronger growth of 20,000 to 30,000 people each year is expected through the year 2003, according to the state budget office.
State colleges will not be ready to handle this “baby boom echo” unless the Legislature makes higher education more of a priority, says Larry Ganders, a lobbyist for Washington State University.
“Their way of dealing with higher education in recent years is: A, cut us, or B, raise tuition,” Ganders says. “Usually, it’s both.”
Since 1991, the state has cut about 8 percent from what higher education administrators say they need to maintain existing programs.
That has led to increased class sizes and less money to replace retiring faculty. The University of Washington is even discussing the closure of entire programs, including the School of Communications and the Slavic Languages Department.
At WSU, the latest round of cuts would bring the total reductions since 1991 to $35 million, according to the university budget office.
All those cuts occurred before the passage in November 1993 of Initiative 601, which limits state spending. The law could make preserving higher education from cuts even more difficult.
Meanwhile, tuition has more than doubled in the past 10 years.
At WSU and the University of Washington, resident undergraduates now pay $2,900 a year, compared to $1,300 in the 1984-85 academic year. Tuition now covers about 41 percent of the cost of an education. The rest is paid by taxpayers.
At the regional universities, Eastern, Central and Western, resident undergraduates pay $2,300, compared to $1,000 in 1984-85. Community college students pay $1,300, up from $580 a decade ago.
However, when compared with similar colleges around the nation, some state colleges are still a bargain.
UW’s tuition is 14 percent lower than comparable major research universities nationwide, according to one study by the Higher Education Coordinating Board.
WSU lags behind similar universities by 2.5 percent, while community college tuitions are essentially equal to those in other states.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, would allow each institution to raise tuition up to 10 percent a year to make up for the lack of state support.
Sure, tuition would be higher, but you get what you pay for, Jacobsen argues.
“At a certain point here, the university is not going to have a reputation for quality, unless you raise tuition,” says Jacobsen. His bill would also channel more money into financial aid to help the neediest students pay for school.
Critics argue Jacobsen’s approach lets the Legislature off the hook. The problem is not that tuition is too low, they say, it’s that the state doesn’t give universities enough money.
“If you go too far in the direction of putting everything on the backs of students, you ignore the fact that there is a public benefit in higher education,” says Nita Rinehart, D-Seattle, who chairs the powerful Senate Ways and Means committee.
She has sponsored a bill that does not give universities tuition-setting powers. Instead, tuition would rise automatically with the growth in average income of state residents. That would mean automatic tuition increases of 4.3 percent next fall and 5.3 percent the following year.
The bill was approved by the Senate Higher Education Committee Monday.
Rinehart wants to up the state’s ante, tying the state’s contribution to the same average income standard as tuition. That increase over the next two years, combined with the tuition increase, would generate more than $120 million.
Jacobsen said he doubts the Legislature will find that kind of slack in the budget - that’s why he wants universities to control their own futures.
“All I’m saying is put your money where your mouth is,” Jacobsen says. “If you’re going to fund higher ed, fine. If not, we’re going to find another way.”
Student leaders worry that higher tuition will price more students out of an education.
Josephine Opong, student body president at Eastern, says students are already paying too much.
“High school students are looking at college tuitions and they’re getting discouraged,” Opong says.
Students at Eastern and other colleges across the state held rallies Wednesday to call attention to the threat of higher tuition and budget cuts.
Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton, who supports Rinehart’s bill, worries the middle class would suffer if tuition gets too high.
“If we really believe in public education, then we want to keep tuition as reasonable as we can,” Prince says.
Ganders says the core of the problem remains a lack of state commitment to higher education. Turning to high tuition or further budget cuts will leave state universities with two stark choices:
“Either they’re not going to be world-class any more, or they’re going to be available only to the few elite among us,” he says.