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Legislature can’t just bail out state’s universities

University of Washington President Michael Young Credit: University of Washington

As most Washington-state natives, I value our state's constitutional commitment to public education. As a product of that public-education system, from grade school through undergraduate years at the University of Washington, I felt I was getting a high-value bargain.

Yet our state is only one of many in which tuitions at public universities are rising rapidly because, it is alleged, state legislators are not providing adequate taxpayer money to the schools. The University of Washington, Washington State University, Western Washington, Central Washington, Eastern Washington, and The Evergreen State College all have raised tuition substantially for the upcoming school year.  On Monday (June 11), the Washington State Budget and Policy Center issued the most recent alarm with a brief report entitled "Higher Education Cuts Threaten Economic Prosperity," which drew on a larger study the Center had done.

The Budget and Policy Center report provided the oft-stated reminders that those with bachelor's degrees or higher had unemployment rates (5.1 percent) half those without college (10.1 percent) and had weekly median earnings $400 higher. It stated that state support for higher education had fallen $1.4 billion since 2009 while one in four students eligibile for the state's need grants were  unable to receive them (in 2010) for lack of funding. In FY2000, student tuition was paying 28 percent of higher-education costs compared to 72 percent in state funding, while in FY2013, tuition was payng 65 percent and state funding 35 percent.

We UW alums have gotten regular e-mails from university officials asking that we contact state legislators on behalf of stronger higher-education funding. The Board of Regents just made a strong public statement endorsing such action.

Why have the funding cutbacks taken place? The answer is not simply that governors and state legislators are mean-spirited and stingy toward public higher education. After all, most of them are graduates of those institutions.

In Washington, it is explained, many non-Seattle legislators have resented what they have seen as disproportionate funding given historically to the UW. There is lingering resentment, too, at the Regents' and former UW President Mark Emmert's bulldozing attempts to get state funding for a Husky Stadium redo (followed by Emmert's disparaging public remarks toward key legislators). The stadium renovation is now being done with private funds.

The same legislators, of course, have been under constant pressure from public-employee unions, including teacher unions, for ever-rising pay and benefits and elementary- and secondary-education funding increases.

Nationally, questions increasingly are being asked about the decades-long increases in public-university and college funding beyond the general inflation rate. Have federal programs benefiting education, and college loans to individual students, caused the institutions to raise their prices so as to qualify for bigger federal help? Faculty salaries have remained relatively stagnant while administrative and capital budgets have risen.

The U.S. Senate has looked hard into pricing policies of for-profit schools, such as the University of Phoenix, which often leave students with big debts and the federal government holding the bag.

There also, of course, has in recent years been the factor of a financial and economic squeeze, which has hit state and local governments, individual families, and students as well. State governments have been forced to fill multi-billion-dollar budget holes and make difficult choices among spending priorities.

A tough-minded professional academic administrator such as UW President Michael Young will, of course, keep bringing pressure on the Legislature for more state funding, mobilizing regents, employees, alumni, and students in the effort. He no doubt will continue to ask for gradual increases in tuition for in-state students and sharper ones for out-of-state students. The latter, it should be noted, are present in greater number in our public universitieis and colleges because of the extra tuition dollars they bring with them. This has resulted, of course, in further limiting places for in-state students in entering freshman classes.

What would you do in the legislators' shoes?

Your first impulse, I suspect, would be to react as they have been forced to do with all groups and institutions seeking state funding. Show us how you are tightening your management, and setting internal priorities, the legislators say. Explain why your costs keep rising, year after year, as compared to those in the private sector and the general inflation rate.  What is your plan to contain those increases? Why should I send money to you rather than to elementary and secondary education and/or technical schools and skills training?

No thinking citizen can disagree with the premise that our public schools, from pre-school through postgraduate level, should be among the strongest in the country. But just demanding more from an already-overstretched state budget is not going to get it done. The answers must be found in better internal management as well as in stronger external funding.

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