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Originally published Tuesday, July 7, 2009 at 2:39 PM

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Guest columnist

Has Washington crossed the Rubicon on high tuition at state universities?

Four of Washington's six universities will receive more operating revenue from tuition and fees than from state appropriation during the 2009-2011 biennium. Ann Daley of the Higher Education Coordinating Board asks if Washington will cross the line toward privatization of public universities.

Special to The Times

THE budget cuts to our public higher-education institutions this biennium were deep enough to cause some to suggest we have crossed the Rubicon — a point of no return.

Are we entering new territory in which our public institutions rely primarily on tuition revenues and operate largely as private entities? Do we need a new public/private funding model? Or will we confirm there is a fundamental public purpose to higher education that merits a public investment?

In 2009-2011, for the first time in history, four of Washington's six baccalaureate institutions will receive more operating revenue from tuition and fees than from state appropriations. They are University of Washington, Central Washington University, Evergreen State College and Western Washington University.

Eastern Washington University will receive only 51 percent of its operating revenue from the state.

These figures are in stark contrast to the previous biennium, when state support for baccalaureate institutions averaged 64 percent of total operating costs.

Not all agree the trend toward a privatized funding model is inevitable. Many would argue that it is not advisable. But we have reached a crossroads, and the decisions we make today will impact our state for generations to come.

Educating more Washingtonians is one of the best investments we can make. Public higher-education institutions are dynamic change agents for our economy and society. Education is the bedrock of our democratic system, the reason we have excelled as a nation. It has never been more important than it is today.

Our world grows rapidly more complex and integrated, and it will continue changing in ways we cannot begin to imagine. States and countries that acknowledge these challenges and educate citizens to higher levels will have the edge.

Providing broad and affordable access to public higher education is the most effective way to prepare our society to thrive in this new environment.

Investments in education produce stronger and more resilient societies. They result in greater citizen involvement; enhanced innovation and creativity; lower incarceration rates; reduced demand for public assistance; and higher wage levels across all job sectors.

Public higher education also has a significant impact on the state's economy. Hundreds of millions will be spent this biennium on construction and infrastructure upgrades on college campuses. Higher education also contributes millions through employee wages and student purchases, dollars that sustain communities throughout our state.

The recession and the budget cuts have come at a particularly challenging time. The state's 2008 Strategic Master Plan for Higher Education noted that Washington is falling behind other states and countries in its efforts to educate more citizens to higher levels.

The master plan, which the Legislature adopted as state policy, calls for aggressive measures to help our state progress. A core goal is a 40-percent increase in annual degree attainment by 2018. Given current funding constraints, is such a goal still possible? We believe it is.

But a new approach will be needed to ensure funding stability and accountability in public higher education. Also needed will be more targeted and strategic levels of state support, new tuition models, more aggressive use of learning technology, and continued financial aid.

Earlier this year, the Legislature directed the Higher Education Coordinating Board to develop a new System Design Plan, the first comprehensive look at the state's higher-education delivery system in 30 years.

The plan will provide rational rules for system growth that will help the state make wise investments in the programs, technology and infrastructure necessary to deliver higher education to the areas and populations that need it most.

Now is not the time to sit on the sidelines of this important discussion. Public higher education needs advocates. Without them we may find ourselves permanently on the wrong side of the Rubicon.

Ann Daley is executive director of the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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