UW tuition debate carries heavy freight

University of Washington (2007) Credit: Paul David Gibson/Flickr

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.

Tim Mensing, president of the Associated Students of the University of Washington, said that the students have traditionally opposed letting the school set tuition, feeling that the UW Board of Regents is less responsive than legislators. Now, Mensing said, the students are “trying to take a more nuanced approach. We understand that these are unique times.”

For all the urgency the UW is attaching to resolving the issue this session, the Kilmer bill wouldn’t actually change anything for the university’s finances in the coming year. Legislators already gave the regents the authority to approve 14 percent tuition raises for the coming year. The state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board questions why the issue has to be resolved this year.

Norm Arkans, a UW associate vice president, said students and the university alike need predictability about their finances, something that has long been missing. Arkans said the students and the UW recognize the university’s high standing is at risk. There is a broad fear at the university and elsewhere that, should the UW be forced into a real budget crisis mode, restoring any emergency reductions in quality could only be overcome over a period of many years, if at all.

The university has had a hard time making itself popular in recent years, with President Mark Emmert’s relatively high salary nationally often serving as a resented symbol to critics. But the university has made big gains both in equity and public relations with its Husky Promise, providing free tuition to thousands of low- and middle-income students.

But one substantial pot of the money for the Husky Promise comes from state need-based grants for poor students. And the higher tuition proposals for the four-year schools have drawn concerns from the community and technical colleges. Suzy Ames, a vice president of Pierce College District operating two community-college campuses, points out that state need grants are tied into tuition at any of the two-year and four-year colleges. Under current formulas for distributing the aid, the university could see a greater share of the grant money going to support its students just by hiking tuition more rapidly than other institutions, especially the community colleges. Then, the Husky Promise (and similar university efforts elsewhere in the state) could ultimately be kept, in part, by taking aid away from community college students who, broadly speaking, are more likely to come from challenging circumstances. And the need grants are already under heavy budget pressure.

Even if Kilmer’s bill clears committee, it still will have to be approved by the full Senate and the House to reach the governor’s desk. But some progress this week would help keep the measure and the discussion alive. Even if the bill ultimately failed at some point, committe passage might open the way, minimally, for a larger study of the issues before next year’s legislative session. The state Higher Education Coordinating Board’s Chris Thompson said that looking at the issue next year might allow decisions to be made in less of a crisis mode than this year, when the Legislature faces not just budget cuts but also a short, 60-day session.

The UW’s Arkans is far less optimistic about delaying. He said the budget issues facing the legislature could be even more frightening in 2011, when there will likely be no federal stimulus money to fill some of the holes.

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