The University of Washington could find out soon whether the administration's angst over the state budget will translate into more freedom to set tuition. That's something the UW has long regarded as one way to manage its future amid slumping state budgets.
State Sen. Derek Kilmer, a Gig Harbor Democrat, is trying to give the UW, Washington State University and the four regional universities authority to raise tuition by as much as 14 percent per year. Kilmer has introduced a bill to move the universities away from a very restricted model that currently gives legislators much more control over annual tuition decisions than is often the case across the country.
The measure, SB 6562, has provoked good discussion. UW students, always worried about tuition hikes, have said they understand the need to maintain the quality of education at the state's premier research university and that modifications in the plan might help. A number of newspapers' editorial pages have supported the proposal, giving the university a crucial opportunity to keep alive a measure for which it had failed to build much support before the session.
Even so, in the House of Representatives, a companion measure hasn't even received a hearing. One result is that, just to keep the measure alive, Kilmer has to move the bill out of the Senate Higher Education Committee by Friday. He chairs the group, but he turned away a question about whether that means he can push the measure through this week, saying that he is just one vote.
For some, the bill doesn't go far enough to get the state out of what they see as micro-managing of higher education and to push universities in more entrepreneurial directions. Sen. Ken Jacobsen, a Seattle Democrat, has proposed giving the UW unfettered authority to raise tuition for campus building and remodeling projects. He sees overtones of a "cargo cult" in the hopes of some higher education leaders for a return to greater state support. The conservative Washington Policy Center would like four-year universities to be less dependent on taxpayer subsidies and have more control over their own finances. The center's Jason Mercier has pointed to moves in Colorado and Japan treating universities as largely self-governing enterprises.
For many others, approaches like those would shortchange or violate what they see as important principles of state support for higher education. They want Olympia to recognize that, while a college degree has measurable private benefits, the advantages to the state of a well-educated citizenry are possibly even greater. They point to research saying well-educated people are more engaged in their communities, and that a high level of education in the workforce helps build a competitive economy.
While it would be a departure for the state and has raised concerns among some of the universities, Kilmer's bill isn't radical at all. The senator (who figures he may be the only legislator still paying off a college loan) said he wants to make sure any changes keep four-year educations affordable and accessible, and that the legislature doesn't accelerate the state's tendency to squeeze down its share of the financing for higher education over recent decades.
Kilmer would certainly give universities more flexibility, but within clear boundaries. He would place both long-term and annual limits on the size of tuition increases (no more than 14 percent a year) and require the universities to negotiate performance agreements with the state on such measures as cost efficiencies, cooperation with community colleges in taking their graduates, and producing four-year degrees, an area in which Washington has lagged badly for years.
Under Kilmer's bill, the UW also would have to keep tuition at no greater than the 75th percentile of the major universities to which the school regularly compares itself. That's one of the areas in which UW students have taken a surprisingly accommodating attitude. They don't reject the concept, but suggest that tuition should be no higher than the 50th percentile.
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