In Washington, like other states, students and the state share in the cost of higher education. The less the state kicks in, the more students and their families are charged for tuition. In Washington, unlike most other states, the Legislature decides both ends of that equation.
But not for long. The House and Senate have approved a bill that would give the state’s six four-year institutions of higher learning tuition-setting authority, and Gov. Chris Gregoire is poised to sign it.
This change is a much-needed nod to the long-standing reality that the amount the Legislature has allocated to these colleges has steadily declined. In the 2009-’11 budget, tuition constituted a larger revenue source than state funding at four of the six institutions. That’s never happened before.
In making both the state funding and tuition decisions, lawmakers were in effect tying the hands of college officials as they sought to maintain academic standards. With this change, institutions can elevate quality as a consideration in setting tuition.
The obvious outcome is that tuitions will jump. Though tuitions were rising anyway, the state’s institutions have been relatively cheap when compared with their peers. The concern is that a continuation of “bargain” status would inevitably erode quality. With the authority to set tuitions, college leaders can make the kinds of long-range decisions that rely on a stable funding source. Awaiting the whims of legislative politics made that a difficult chore.
This change doesn’t mean the state is abandoning its oversight role. The bill contains important provisions that ensure that more financial help is available to middle-income families that previously earned too much to qualify for state aid but still struggled with college costs. It also calls on institutions to collect data and issue regular progress reports on increasing the graduation rate, especially in the high job demand fields of science, math and technology. The overall impact of tuition-setting authority will also be audited.
In a nod to a recent controversy, the bill requires these colleges to enroll at least as many in-state students as they did in the previous year. The University of Washington had begun offsetting its funding shortfall by enrolling more out-of-state students, who pay higher tuitions.
We realize that the inevitable increases in tuition will trigger heartburn in many households, but budgetary realities are dictating this move. K-12 schools have a constitutional claim on state funds. Health care costs continue to crowd out other spending.
The only other alternative would be to erode the quality of our public colleges and universities. That is too high a price to pay.