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Editorial: Tuition reform study must offer solutions

A renewed effort by Sen. Michael Baumgartner to get tuition increases at Washington public universities under control was turned back Friday, but there might be a thin silver lining to the rejection.

The Spokane Republican had proposed a Debt-Free Degree Act that would have capped tuition at 10 percent of the average wage in the state. That would have cut charges at the University of Washington, for example, to $5,200; or more than 50 percent.

Students basking in a one-year tuition freeze after 27 years of increases – double-digit in recent years – would have been dancing in the quad had Baumgartner succeeded.

But debt-free for students equaled more cash from the state, about $200 million annually. Baumgartner proposed to backfill the gap with revenue generated by taxes to be levied on the growing, distributing and selling of marijuana when stores finally open later this year.

The revenue estimates run as high as $400 million per year, but if the state’s experience with the privatization of liquor sales is any indication, much of that projected revenue will go up in smoke. High taxation drives consumers to other sellers – Idaho in the case of alcohol, the street corner in the case of marijuana.

Baumgartner also took a run at the tuition issue last year, when he and other Republicans proposed a 3 percent reduction in conjunction with a 10 percent increase in higher education spending. With legislators obliged to dedicate another $1 billion to K-12 education thanks to the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, the money wasn’t there for tuition relief.

But they did impose the freeze, and kicked $119 million more into the university system budget.

Still, Washington public and private colleges do not graduate all the scientists and engineers needed for the state’s technology-dependent economy. High tuition and heavy borrowing have turned back too many students.

A debt-free degree is a grand objective. Graduates finish with debt averaging more than $25,000. They can’t buy homes, and they cannot start families with such burdensome financial obligations.

But many also point to the abundance of available student aid as a contributor to the cycle of ever higher tuition, and an exploration of that dynamic in Washington should be the focus of a special legislative task force the Senate Committee on Higher Education endorsed instead of Baumgartner’s plan. A report is due in December.

Too often, authorizing a study amounts to punting an issue into the next legislative session and, in this case, after the next election. That should not be allowed to happen with a study so important to a higher education system not producing the workers Washington needs.

If this is the legislation that emerges from this short session, Baumgartner must press for a report with substance and solutions, or the debt-free degree will remain a thing of the past.

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