Offer by higher ed to freeze tuition worth discussing

The double-digit tuition increases year after year can’t continue.

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Tuition at most of Washington state’s universities and colleges has been going up in the neighborhood of 15 percent a year. That’s a neighborhood that’s getting too rich for a growing number of Washingtonians.

For example, tuition is now more than $11,000 a year at Washington State University for state residents. And as the tuition continues to climb the dream of going to college is fading in many families.

But what are the universities and colleges to do?

The Legislature continues to reduce public funding for these public institutions because higher education is a soft spot in the budget. Funding for universities isn’t mandated as it is for kindergarten through high school. Prisons and other law enforcement are critical to public safety. With lives on the line, only so much can be cut.

So to fill the financial gap created by the reduction in funding, the schools have raised tuition year, after year, after year.

This cannot continue.

The public university presidents got together in search of a solution — albeit temporary — to the funding-tuition problem. Last week the six presidents proposed to the Legislature a plan designed to freeze tuition for the next two years. If lawmakers can put $225 million over what was allocated in the last two-year budget, the schools will not raise tuition.

Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard, speaking for the other leaders, said the ultimate aim is to return to a more reasonable funding split between state subsidy and tuition. In the past, it was 50-50.

Right now, because tuition is up and subsidies are down, the split is close to 70 percent tuition and 30 percent from the state budget.

The current funding allocation for the two-year budget that goes through July of this year is $1 billion for the four-year schools. If the six presidents get their $225 million the total would equal what was allocated for higher education in the budget approved in 2009.

It’s an offer lawmakers should discuss with the presidents. We don’t know if an extra $225 million will be available, and neither do lawmakers. The legislators return to Olympia on Monday to begin the budget process. When revenue forecasts are juxtaposed with spending requests it shows the state is already $1 billion in the hole.

We also are not sure if $225 million is the magic number the schools need or is it just a starting place for negotiations.

But what we do know is a way to stem these annual double-digit tuition increases must be found.

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