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Originally published February 19, 2013 at 4:35 PM | Page modified February 19, 2013 at 4:56 PM

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Editorial: State lawmakers should freeze college tuition rates

State lawmakers’ fixation on the Guaranteed Education Tuition program distracts from the need to improve state funding for higher education.

Seattle Times Editorial

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COLLEGE students need a break on tuition. Washington lawmakers should aim for a short-term freeze on tuition rates.

The Legislature’s work toward this goal begins with credible investments in higher education. Two bills in the state Senate, one providing $225 million to the six public four-year institutions, the other $188 million to the state’s community college and technical schools, sets a framework for the state eventually to get back to paying for at least half the cost of education.

Right now, University of Washington students pay about 70 percent of the cost of their education, with state appropriations covering the rest. Resident undergraduate tuition at the UW has more than doubled in the past five years.

Leaders of the state’s six four-year institutions have said they will freeze tuition rates in exchange for increased funding. Money will not be easy to find in a legislative session focused on investing more in K-12 education. But it is time for the state to begin reversing its pattern of disinvestment in higher education.

The schools are doing their part to rein in costs. The UW has stripped about $100 million in administrative, procurement and contracting costs. The state’s largest university has 900 fewer employees than it did in 2008.

Holding tuition steady is a priority that requires greater state investment now. Some lawmakers are concerned about the sustainability of college-assistance efforts such as the Guaranteed Education Tuition program, the state Need Grant and College Bound. But holding down tuition eases the pressure on those programs.

Linking funding to performance measures, such as student retention and graduation rates, is part of the discussion. Washington universities already post some of the highest graduation rates in the country, despite grappling with some of the lowest levels of state investment. They were also among the earliest adopters of “Complete to Compete,” the nationally recognized accountability framework for higher education institutions.

The Legislature’s commitment to move beyond the days of balancing the state budget on the backs of higher education starts with more-robust support. The response by institutions ought to be a freeze on tuition rates for at least two years.

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