For the University of Washington, the uncertainty about its future is growing. And the concern is much more about finances than the upcoming change in leadership as President Mark Emmert, leaving to run the NCAA, is replaced by an interim successor.
As the state's premier research institution, the university plays a big role in the economy of the Puget Sound region and the state as a whole. But the university is definitely feeling under-appreciated by state government.
Given the economy in the country, that’s hardly unique. Higher education has taken particularly hard hits as state legislatures and governors balance their strained budgets.
But the UW long has found itself working with considerably less state support than many similar institutions around the country, and even less than schools that don't have its high academic rankings. In the past two legislative sessions, says Randy Hodgins, the UW's vice president for external affairs, the university lost one-third of its direct state support in 15 months due to budget cuts approved by the lawmakers and the governor.
In a recent discussion with Crosscut writers and editors, Hodgins talked about how the UW can control its own finances to maintain a top-quality state university, continue to serve the higher education needs of young people in Washington, and act as a strong engine in a recovering economy. He focused on approaches that would raise tuition, but far less drastically than some have feared, and would allow the university to manage its own affairs more effectively.
The kinds of moderate policies Hodgins outlined ought to keep the the university an institution of opportunity for the most academically talented young people in the state. But, other than through its branch campuses, at Bothell and Tacoma, it probably won't open its doors to a lot more Washington students. The UW is admitting as many Washington students as before for its next freshman class, Hodgins said, but it will create more spots than usual for out-of-state students to reap the higher tuition they pay.
That's much more reasonable a choice than, say, admitting much larger numbers from elsewhere at the cost of fewer spots for Washington students. And it gives the university some extra revenue for the undergraduate programs (the heart of the school) that are particularly dependent on the plunging state budget support.
But there's considerably more the university might do to deal with its finances, if given some modest additional authority by the legislature. In fact, the UW built a rather surprising amount of momentum toward larger solutions during this year's legislative session.
On a bipartisan vote, the Senate passed a measure championed by Sen. Derek Kilmer from Gig Harbor to grant the UW's regents the authority to raise tuition on their own by limited amounts (no more than 14 percent in any one year, for instance, and not to exceed the 75th percentile of similar institutions' tuition). The bill died when a House committee chair, Deb Wallace, wouldn't bring it to a vote.
The bill's constraints against runaway tuition hikes and the university's financial challenges were clear enough that students even showed some interest in the measure. As long as the university continues to expand free tuition for the lowest-income students (something the UW and the state’s four-year schools generally do well) and make more middle-income students eligible for at least modest help, the plan could appeal to broad sections of the public. And the university has a good track record since the legislature gave it control over the graduate and professional school tuition over recent years: "We raced right to the middle," said Hodgins, meaning that the school raised tuition rates but only in keeping with prevailing levels.
Beyond getting the ability to raise undergraduate tuition generally, the university would also like to be able to set variable rates, that is, to charge more for preparing people for high-demand, high-paying fields such as engineering or some of the sciences. Those areas also tend to be fields in which the costs of instruction and lab facilities are higher than for a literature or history student.
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