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Shawn Vestal: Floyd’s tuition plan for WSU overdue, masterful

WEDNESDAY, OCT. 10, 2012

At least one leader at Washington State University is kicking butt this year.

President Elson Floyd has proposed holding the line on tuition increases. He has asked WSU’s Board of Regents to tie tuition increases to the Consumer Price Index, the government’s measure of inflation, rather than jacking up tuition by five or six or 10 times that amount, as has been the default position for years throughout higher ed.

At the same time, Floyd’s proposing a budget maneuver to divert administrative funds and give modest raises to staffers who’ve had flat salaries for years – and he’s targeting those raises to the middle range of salaries and lower.

So: Tuition increases at the rate of inflation. Raises for those making less than $100,000 a year.

Talk about winning the day for crimson and gray. Is it too late to stop production on all those Mike Leach bobbleheads and crank out a few for E-Flo?

Floyd’s not the only college president taking this tack, but he’s the first one in these parts to do it. We shouldn’t necessarily be surprised: In five years as WSU president, Floyd has laid some savvy tracks and shown a propensity for driving significant changes while keeping an eye on the politics and perceptions.

He oversaw a massive reorganization of colleges and programs at the university and has presided over an era of cutbacks in which administrative positions and costs are not magically exempted. He established a major new research center with the Paul G. Allen Center of Global Animal Health, giving WSU the potential to claim an important, emerging scientific niche. He’s helped draw in vast amounts in fundraising and is leading the effort to gather more: a total of $1 billion. He orchestrated all the recent hoo-ha over sports – bringing in Bill Moos and Mike Leach and sparking genuine excitement about Cougar football, which I suppose must be considered a priority for a university president.

I’m far too distant from Floyd and WSU to say whether, all things considered, he’s a good president. But he sure seems like one in many ways, which is a big part of being one.

The tuition move is emblematic. It’s good for students, and it’s strategically smart. Floyd is seizing the chance to give overburdened students a break – while seizing the chance to announce that he’s giving overburdened students a break.

Truthfully, it’s only a break in the insane context of college tuition. States have been gradually backing away from funding public colleges: The proportion of higher ed covered by taxpayers in Washington has declined by nearly 50 percent between fiscal 2000 and today, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Board. Meanwhile, tuition at state schools has gone up by an average of 10 percent a year over that time.

That pattern spiked with the recession. A mere four years ago, the state paid about two-thirds the cost of educating a student at WSU. Today that is nearly reversed: Students and families pick up 57 percent of the cost, according to the HEC Board. At Eastern Washington University, the students’ share of the bill has risen from 33 percent to 61 percent.

Make no mistake: The primary problem in this dynamic is the erosion of state support. But colleges bear responsibility for the casual, ruthless speed with which they have heaped enormous tuition increases on students and families.

The result is that, over the course of a very few years, the financial DNA of public universities has changed drastically. They are less public than they used to be.

This dynamic bodes ill for the whole concept of public education – the idea that we have a shared interest in an accessible system of education. And it fosters an environment in which the irreplaceable elements of an in-person, on-campus college education are increasingly seen as replaceable with outrageously expensive, educationally insufficient online “universities.”

Floyd’s proposal should not feel so radical, given that it’s so overdue. But it does. Last week, he presented it before the Board of Regents – which must approve it, eventually, and which should – along with his salary proposal.

On tuition, Floyd would tie next year’s tuition to the CPI, so long as the Legislature funds WSU at the current level or higher. That condition is politically ingenious, because it binds lawmakers to the tuition question in a way they have tried to avoid, and on which they have passed the buck before.

The CPI fluctuates; it was 1.7 percent from August 2011 to August 2012.

Over the last decade, a full-time undergraduate studying in Pullman who is a resident of Washington has seen his or her tuition and fees increase from $4,520 to $12,300. Not all of that is tuition – students are forking out more to pay for a spiffed-up football palace and student union building – but most of it is.

And consider: If that $4,520 had been pegged to the CPI in 2002-’03, it would be $5,788.29 today.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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