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Tuition flexibility good news to colleges

Thu., May 26, 2011

Bill takes sting out of budget cuts to higher ed

SEATTLE – There’s a very good reason Washington’s university presidents aren’t tearing down the governor’s door this week to complain about a proposed half-billion-dollar cut in state dollars for the state’s colleges and universities over the next two years, and it has nothing to do with not wanting the public to see them cry.

They know the real people who should be crying are Washington parents who plan to send their children to college over the next few years.

The state budget deal announced by lawmakers on Tuesday is based on annual tuition increases ranging from 11 to 13 percent, depending on the school, but that’s only half the story. Legislators have also approved a historic bill that will let the state’s six, four-year colleges and universities set their own tuition, so for the first time, tuition guidelines from the Legislature are just suggestions.

UW Interim President Phyllis Wise said Wednesday it’s hard to be happy about a budget that cuts another third of the university’s state appropriation, bringing the school about half the dollars they got from the state three years ago.

“But these are unusual times, and to its credit, the Legislature did much to try to soften the blow and enable us to manage our resources in more efficient, targeted ways,” she said, in a statement.

The UW board of regents will begin its discussion about next year’s tuition in a few weeks, said Randy Hodgins, UW vice president of external affairs.

They will be looking at a variety of scenarios, Hodgins said, with the aim of maintaining UW’s quality of education while not raising tuition so high that parents change their minds and decide to send their children elsewhere.

Parents already expect a double-digit tuition increase, what they won’t know until sometime in July is how close the university will reach toward 20 percent. The number being tossed around Olympia in recent weeks was 16 percent.

“We won’t close the whole gap with tuition,” Hodgins promised.

Regents will choose from a range of options – each with a tuition price tag attached – such as maintaining writing centers on campus, making as many classes as possible available for the courses nearly all freshmen and sophomores are expected to take, or hiring more teaching assistants. This process will be repeated at college campuses around the state over the next month or so.

Next year’s students have already been accepted and have mostly made their college choices by now. Hodgins doesn’t expect the regents’ decision to affect those choices.

“It would take a tuition increase that no one here is contemplating to keep people away,” he said.

Steve Swan, vice president for university relations at Western Washington University, said Western’s Board of Trustees likely will make a tuition decision during its meeting June 9-10.

Along with setting a tuition level that helps maintain the college experience Western students expect, Swan said the university is in the middle of a serious reassessment of everything they do, with all college expenses, from maintenance to whole programs on the table for discussion.

“Just as businesses do on a regular basis, we’re really taking a look at what it is that we do well, and what we do not,” Swan said.

The process is similar to what all state schools have been doing repeatedly over the past two years, as money from the state budget has been cut repeatedly. State dollars now pay for less than half the cost of running Western, UW and Washington State University.

“We want to make sure that we don’t weaken the Western brand so that what we’re strong in we continue to be strong in,” Swan said.

And if that means Western parents, like him, have to pay more, Swan is ready to pull out his checkbook.

In-state tuition has been on a steep incline for the past few years. The Legislature authorized tuition increases of 14 percent for the past two academic years, after about six years of steady 7 percent increases, preceded by one year of 14-16 percent increases for 2002-2003.

The tuition-setting bill, which is expected to be signed by the governor, gives the six state schools tuition setting authority through 2018-’19. In return, they must increase financial aid, make a plan to improve graduation rates, keep in-state student enrollment steady, and cooperate with community colleges on transfer credits. The bill also would allow schools to set higher tuition rates for more expensive majors, such as science degrees that require a lot of lab work.

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