Legislators made the correct decision this week by granting the state’s five public universities and The Evergreen State College the authority to set their own tuition rates. Gov. Chris Gregoire said she will sign the bill that isn’t as big a procedural sea change as its detractors claim. Fact is, this is the way it’s done in most states; Washington is one of only a few states where the Legislature has set tuition rates.
But it wasn’t conformity with other states that drove lawmakers to make this change. Like many other decisions in recent years, it was sheer destitution, to the tune of a projected $5.1 billion budget deficit that legislators have confronted during a 30-day special session now at its midway point.
Of course, this issue isn’t so much about politics or budgets; it’s about university students and the rapidly rising costs of their dreams. In just the past two years, tuition has increased 30 percent, and double-digit increases are looming in each of the next two years. For example, during the 2008-2009 academic year, University of Washington students paid about $6,800 in tuition. That total could surpass the $11,000 mark in the next few years.
It’s not as if the shift in tuition-setting authority will bring about any shocking news about cost increases. That’s already happening. The question now is: Will the institutions make those increases even more painful? We don’t know, but we like the idea of educators and administrators — not politicians — determining tuition costs. We’ve already seen one discouraging example of what happens under the old system. The UW this year faced such drastic financial woes that officials there decreased in-state freshmen enrollment and increased enrollment of out-of-state students who pay more than twice as much in tuition.
That’s the wrong approach, and it’s answered by one provision in the recent bill that shifts tuition-setting authority. The UW’s in-state freshman enrollment is set by the bill at a minimum of 4,000 students starting in 2012-13.
Another portion of the measure addresses the understandable concerns about soaring costs. Financial aid would be increased by about $100 million, and a sliding scale would allow families that earn 125 percent of the state’s median family income (about $97,500 annually for a family of four, according to The Seattle Times) to qualify for assistance. Currently that level is set at 70 percent of the median family income.
To be sure, no one likes increasing the cost of attending universities in our state, but the alternative — reducing the quality of higher education — is worse. Gregoire said this week: “No one wants to raise tuition, but the fact of the matter is, if we want to maintain quality and keep the doors to higher education open in this state, that bill is the key to making both of those happen.”
In other words, the money has to come from somewhere, and we don’t know of a more appropriate source than the main beneficiaries of higher education, the students, who can be seen as the customers.
There have been attempts before in the Legislature to change tuition-setting authority, and the fact that such a change passed this year by wide margins in both chambers defines the seriousness of the state’s funding problems. University administrators know better than elected officials how to balance the demands of remaining high-quality with the need to remain affordable. Letting those on-campus experts determine the costs — setting what essentially is a user fee — makes good sense.