A college education must be affordable for all students

Yet, that won't be the case in Washington state with double-digit tuition hikes year after year.

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State institutions of higher learning - universities and colleges - are funded with tax dollars. Why?

Because they are public, state-owned schools established so all citizens, not just the wealthy, would have an opportunity to get a college education. That at least is - or was - the goal.

But the state Legislature seems to have lost sight of that goal judging by the way it allocates funds to our public universities and colleges. The current fiscal crisis seems to be clouding its vision.

We understand the current recession has reduced tax collections and forced state government to make cuts in spending. And because higher education isn't protected by mandates or the constitution, it is a target for cuts.

Most lawmakers, of course, understand the importance of higher education and the need to retain top faculty and maintain quality programs. This is why the Legislature authorized tuition increases of 14 percent a year over the past two years. Last week the Senate approved a plan that allows the University of Washington, Washington State University and Western Washington University to raise tuition each year for seven years.

Yearly tuition hikes would be capped at 14 percent, provided the average annual increase compounded over 15 years wouldn't be pushed above 9 percent. As a trade-off, the universities must agree to yearly performance agreements and continue to finance financial aid grants at the current rate.

Wow, that's some trade-off. Allow the rate of tuition to rise to the level that middle-income families would be priced out of college but then force them to come begging to the state for financial aid.

Who would qualify for this financial aid? Who knows. Seven years is a long time and the rules will likely change several times.

This promise of financial aid is not to be trusted. It can too easily be broken.

Beyond that, it's simply wrong to make a public education so exclusive that only the wealthy can afford it.

Lawmakers need to regain focus and provide adequate state subsidy for these state schools.

Yes, we realize finding more money for anything right now is incredibly challenging. And it will continue to be a challenge even after the economy recovers - but it will recover.

When tax revenues increase adequately, money must be earmarked for higher education so double-digit tuition increases aren't necessary and a college education is affordable.

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