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Higher-ed task force unveils list of solutions

Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press

SEATTLE – A task force charged with finding stable money to pay for higher education in Washington state has some ideas it wants the Legislature to consider.

At the top of its list announced Monday: Find someone other than state government to pay the bill.

The task force formed by Gov. Chris Gregoire wants donations from individuals and corporations to finance a new $1 billion scholarship fund. And it wants to allow state colleges to raise their own tuition to keep Washington tuition and fees comparable to charges at similar institutions in other states. Currently the Legislature sets tuition.

The task force chaired by Microsoft Corp. executive Brad Smith was asked to find ways to increase the number of degrees awarded by 30 percent over the next decade, while dealing with budget deficits and finding a stable source of money for higher education.

“We believe that the current economic challenges facing the state underscore the need for a new long-term plan,” Smith said at a news conference Monday.

The group of 16 business, government and education leaders has met privately six times since July to brainstorm and decide which recommendations to give the Legislature. State law didn’t require the group to hold public meetings because it was not given a task by the Legislature.

Now lawmakers will decide whether to consider the task force’s proposals and whether they will be proposed as bills.

The chair of the House Higher Education Committee, Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, said he was impressed by the task force’s suggestions and expected the tuition proposal to get a good hearing in the Legislature despite the failure of a similar proposal last year.

Gregoire told a group of kids, parents and task force members gathered at a Seattle middle school that she was delighted with the recommendations. She said she would do whatever she could to encourage the Legislature to consider them during its 2011 session, even though she’s expecting it to be a tough session.

Gregoire advised the children at Aki Kurose Middle School not to worry about what’s happening in the budget today but to focus instead on getting ready for college. She emphasized that jobs of the future will require college degrees.

“This recession has made this very plain: There are education haves and have-nots,” the governor said, noting that the state unemployment rate for people with college degrees was half as high as the unemployment rate for those without a higher education.

The proposed tuition-setting freedom would be part of a complicated formula that would let tuition go up and down in contrast with state budget contributions to higher education.

University leaders have been asking for more tuition flexibility to help them control their own budgets.

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