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Thu., March 21, 2013

Editorial: Lawmakers’ higher ed goal lofty, ensures talk

When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wanted a “Star Trek” underling to execute an order, he would crisply command, “Make it so.” If only it were that easy aboard the ship of state in Olympia.

Senate Republicans, including Spokane Sen. Michael Baumgartner, announced a plan Tuesday to cut college tuition by 3 percent and increase higher education funding by 10 percent, including $50 million for more slots in the science, technology and engineering fields and $26 million for state need grants. Sounds wonderful – but when applying some basic math, it looks daunting.

• The state revenue forecast was released Wednesday, and budget writers are looking at a $1.2 billion budget hole.

• The state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision compels lawmakers to cough up more money for K-12 education.

• The Legislature in 2011 handed tuition-setting authority over to universities after a long period of neglect.

The plan’s architects say new federal money for Medicaid will allow the earmarking of $300 million in newly available money for colleges and universities. But higher education officials say it’s only about a $75 million increase (some of which is offset by the 3 percent tuition cut) from Gov. Chris Gregoire’s final budget, because it counts some carry-forward funding as “new money.” Examples are utilities and inflation-related increases on goods and services. In short, it’s money needed to maintain the same level of service.

However, what nobody disputes is that the Legislature has starved higher education. It wasn’t that long ago the state covered 70 percent of students’ higher education costs. Now it’s closer to 30 percent. Senate Republicans have established a long-term goal of 50 percent.

Students can only dream. We hope this is more than a dream.

Washington isn’t alone in raiding higher education, but it is among the larger looters. Nationally, the average per-student cut over the past five years is 28 percent (adjusted for inflation), according to an analysis conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In Washington, it’s been 37.5 percent. Meanwhile, tuition at Washington’s four-year colleges has risen 63.6 percent (more for research universities), which is the fourth-highest hike in the nation.

Like everyone else, we’d like to see more details, but we applaud the emphasis Senate Republicans are placing on higher education. The goal of a 50-50 split on college cost is a reasonable compromise. After the 2013-15 biennium, the plan is to peg tuition hikes to the general inflation rate, which would give students and parents a predictable target. The focus on science, engineering and technology is critical because the state has the highest concentration of such jobs, but ranks only 46th among states in producing students with four-year degrees in those fields.

On the other hand, we can’t blame university officials for wanting more information, or wondering whether lawmakers will dump this commitment the next time the economy heads south.

Overall this proposal rates an “incomplete,” but at least it guarantees a robust debate about this essential mission.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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