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Originally published Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at 3:37 PM

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Guest columnist

Seeking a new paradigm for funding Washington's public higher education

The Washington Legislature's support of the state's public higher education institutions has been on the wane in recent years. Whitman College President George S. Bridges, a former public university academic dean, offers some advice for keeping public institutions strong.

Special to The Times

AS Washington state faces a crippling budget deficit, severe cuts to public higher education seem inevitable. With fewer funds available, the challenge of preserving the quality of our colleges and universities and providing access to higher education is daunting.

Washington's challenges are not unique. States across the nation are grappling with similar funding issues. Alarmingly, many schools rely increasingly on tuition paid by out-of-state-students — often priced two to three times higher than the tuition and fees of in-state students — to support their bottom line. Nearly 30 percent of all first-year students in the Oregon higher-education system are from other states; in Arizona the percentage is nearly 34 percent. In Washington, 17 percent of first-year students enroll from other states with the majority attending the University of Washington.

Reliance on state support and increased enrollments of out-of-state students to fund our public colleges and universities serves Washingtonians poorly. Our state needs a new paradigm for funding higher education that accords highest priority to student access and success. The state Legislature should consider the model used successfully by private colleges and universities for years.

Colleges should have the authority to set tuition at levels that correspond to their capacity and commitment to delivering education in a manner consistent with their respective missions. Tuition should be much higher, with a significant proportion of tuition directed to student financial aid and undergraduate instruction.

By setting tuition levels high and discounting tuition substantially for students in relation to their financial need, independent colleges successfully preserve access to higher education. At Whitman College, where I am president, we provide significant financial aid to students from middle- and lower-income families. For every incoming tuition dollar, we return, on average, 38 cents to students in the form of financial aid. Of those students receiving aid, the average award amounts to $29,727 per year.

Whitman is not unique in this regard. Together, Washington's independent colleges and universities award 90 percent of all students some financial aid, enroll a high percentage of underrepresented minorities and students first in their families to attend college, graduate 80 percent of their students in four years or less, have significantly lower student-to-faculty ratios than most public institutions, save Washington in excess of $350 million annually in state subsidies for resident students, and provide enough aid such that the net cost of a four-year college education for those receiving aid is equal to or less than that of some of our public institutions.

Finally, the debt levels of our alumni are very similar to those of public institutions despite the disparities in upfront tuition prices. In short, the high-tuition/high-aid model serves students better.

In a recent book titled "Why Does College Cost So Much?," two economists at the College of William and Mary advocate a companion idea for rethinking public higher education. They argue that all state subsidies for higher education should go directly to students rather than to institutions. Students would bring the funding they receive from the state to the colleges they are attending, providing much-needed funding increases for over-enrolled schools.

Under this model, public colleges and universities would no longer contend with one another for state support as funding would follow the students. Freed from the struggle to capture state funding each biennium in Olympia, institutions could accord greater attention to the specific educational needs of the students they serve.

A final and necessary ingredient for advancing higher education in Washington state must be a collaborative partnership between public and private colleges and universities. Whereas our institutions differ in focus and scope, together we provide thousands of Washingtonians with exceptional educational experiences each year. Any new paradigm for supporting higher education must draw fully upon the resources of every institution and reform must focus on how we can serve students better.

We must commit to ensuring that they can attend the college or university — public or private — in which they are most likely to thrive intellectually and develop the capacities they will need to succeed in their professional and civic lives. Our state's future depends upon it.

George S. Bridges is president of Whitman College. A Seattle native, he attended Seattle public schools, is an alumnus of the University of Washington and a former UW professor and academic dean.

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