Legislature must increase state funding for higher education

President Obama was right to rail against the soaring cost of tuition. But he was wrong to blame the public colleges. The fault is with state lawmakers.

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State governments throughout the country, including Washington state, have been slashing their support for higher education. As a result, tuition has been increasing at an alarming rate - often a double-digit percentage hike. This is making college unaffordable to more and more Americans.

President Obama decried this trend recently, calling for states to stem the soaring tuition costs or risk losing federal dollars.

While Obama is on the mark in demanding an end to the tuition lunacy, he's flat-out wrong about threatening the loss of federal money to the public colleges. This would only make a bad situation worse.

And the presidents of the three largest universities in Washington state are 100 percent correct when they insist Obama should focus his ire on state lawmakers, not the folks who run the universities. The fact is the universities are operating more efficiently and have kept costs essentially flat since 2003. The full cost of educating a student at Western Washington University was $9,818 in 2003 and now it's a couple hundred dollars less at $9,630.

But the state taxpayers used to pick up the majority of those costs. Today, it's on the students - and their parents.

A decade ago, 80 percent of the cost of an education at the University of Washington was subsidized by the state. Today, the state's portion of the tab is a mere 30 percent.

In the 1991-93 state budget, the Legislature allocated $1.4 billion for higher education. In the current two-year budget the total targeted for higher education is $980 million. That means a decade ago higher education represented 9 percent of the overall state budget. Today, it's a mere 3 percent.

"The fact is the taxpayers have pulled their money back," said Bruce Shepard, president of Western Washington.

Actually, the Legislature made the decision for them. We continue to believe lawmakers should have cut elsewhere even if it means ending some programs that are valuable. Education - including higher education - should be a top priority of state government.

The huge increase in tuition has caused personal stress and financial strain for middle-class families across the state. It's making college unaffordable for some and creating mountains of debt for others.

The double-digit tuition increases can't continue. Lawmakers must find a way to boost the state's subsidy so all qualified Washingtonians have the opportunity to get a university or college education.

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