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Originally published December 26, 2012 at 4:45 PM | Page modified December 26, 2012 at 4:45 PM

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Editorial: Retain degree-tuition flexibility for state’s colleges, universities

Washington state’s higher education institutions need the flexibility to raise tuition for degrees that cost more.

Seattle Times Editorial

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WASHINGTON lawmakers are legitimately concerned that higher education’s ability to charge more for certain degrees will raise the state’s obligation to families who prepaid college costs.

But permanently repealing the 2011 law that gave colleges and universities the flexibility, as a few legislators have proposed, would be the wrong move.

Repealing differential tuition to avoid a shortfall in the Guaranteed Education Tuition program is the tail wagging the dog. GET should not dictate tuition policy. The college-saving program is about $600 million underfunded.

That’s a problem, but one that affords enough time to fashion long-term policy solutions. It is unlikely every GET account holder would turn to the state to cash in their units today.

Differential tuition ought to be here to stay. In higher education, less-expensive programs, such as philosophy, subsidize more-expensive majors such as engineering. If schools could charge higher tuition for high-demand, high-wage fields, they could rely less on subsidies.

Before the law could be implemented, the Legislature suspended differential tuition last session until lawmakers could better understand the impact on the college-savings program.

Under GET, the state per-unit payout is pegged to the highest tuition level — typically at the University of Washington.

As higher education seeks more innovative and creative ways to respond to budget challenges, shifting from a one-size-fits-all tuition model is key. Setting the cost of an education closer to the actual price makes sense.

Rather than being a disincentive to college students, charging engineering or health-sciences majors more would mean money to expand slots in those programs. More financial-aid money could help low-income students.

Possible solutions include exempting the UW and Washington State University from differential-tuition policy for the time being.

The state’s comprehensive public universities and community colleges all have tuition rates low enough to avoid problems with GET. Lawmakers would need to recognize that if the UW and WSU were prevented from setting higher tuition rates, the needed funds would have to come from the state.

Another idea is to keep the flexibility for every public institution but suspend it for another two years and keep plugging away on a solution to GET. That’s probably the best route. Repealing the law would be premature.

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