Universities should have leeway to charge more for expensive programs

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Not long ago state lawmakers gave the green light to a reasonable stop-gap measure aimed at helping public universities continue to offer quality programs in the midst of state budget cuts.

Now, it appears legislators are changing their minds as those likely to feel pain from the decision are squawking.

The idea now under fire is to charge higher tuition for high-demand, high-cost programs such as engineering, business and computer science.

These types of programs are more expensive than many others. In addition, universities are turning away students from these programs for a variety of reasons, one of which is that the graduates of those programs are likely to make more money than the bulk of liberal arts majors.

No, differential tuiton isn’t an ideal solution, but it is better than another round of across-the-board double-digit tuition hikes

Lawmakers are now balking because of concerns that the pre-paid tuition program — GET — would take a financial hit by having to cover the tuition for those majoring in high-demand fields.

In reaction to early concerns, lawmakers suspended the differential-tuition authority. The proposal now on the table in Olympia is for it to be axed altogether.

The Legislature needs to separate the GET program concerns from tuition-hike decisions. If not, it creates the perception lawmakers are worried only about tuition hikes if the state is picking up the tab, but are deaf to the concerns of middle-class families. It might not be the intent, but perception is reality in politics. Middle-class families are being stung by the high cost of college.

University of Washington lobbyist Margaret Shepherd said students are now being turned away from engineering and similar programs because UW can’t afford enough faculty.

The UW lobbyist as well as representatives of Washington State, Western Washington and Central Washington made it clear to lawmakers they want to keep the option of differential tuition.

“We have very real industry needs out there to increase production in certain areas,” said WSU lobbyist Chris Mulick, even though WSU has no plans of implementing differential tuition. Neither do Western and Central.

“This was one tool that in the future could be used to help us if we were not able to secure state support for these kinds of high cost, high demand programs,” Mulick said.

Until an adequate stable funding source for public higher education is established, offering university officials tuiton flexibility makes sense.

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