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Originally published Tuesday, February 8, 2011 at 4:18 PM

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Guest columnist

Tuition increases at Washington colleges are not sustainable

Washington State University President Elson S. Floyd supports tuition flexibility for the state's colleges and universities. However, he cautions that as a matter of state policy, the pace of recent increases are not sustainable. The state must set a funding floor for support of higher education.

Special to The Times

THE question of college tuition has been in the forefront of many discussions I have had during the early weeks of this year's legislative session in Olympia.

It is a vital subject for our students, who have seen tuition increase by 14 percent in each of the last two years; for our state's economy, which will suffer if rising tuition reduces higher-educational opportunities for Washingtonians; and for our university, which has a long-standing commitment to educational excellence and student access.

I support tuition flexibility. I believe university governing boards — working with various stakeholders — are in the best position to determine tuition policy for each university. At Washington State University, broad-based internal committees help set rates for housing and dining, student-activity fees and parking. We could implement similar procedures on tuition.

However, tuition flexibility is only one part of the equation and in no way is it an end in itself.

From my perspective, the most important piece in the higher-education finance puzzle remains our state's appropriation to higher education. The second critical piece is the commitment of both the state and the individual universities to providing adequate financial aid to provide access for Washington students.

Stable funding and adequate financial aid are absolutely essential. Without them, tuition flexibility becomes another route to the wrong destination — ever-greater burdens on students and their parents

Our legislative strategy for this session is focused on protecting our budget. We strongly endorse the findings of the governor's Higher Education Task Force, which said our state should establish a funding floor for higher education and work from that base to raise per-student funding over time.

Such a commitment must be met in kind by colleges and universities. We are willing to be accountable to our students, their parents and the public for how we spend those dollars. Graduation rates, time to degree and educational outcomes — measured both in the employability of our graduates and the number of students who continue on to graduate studies and professional schools — are all legitimate measures.

In higher education, we fully understand that college costs are a hot-button issue. However, what is too often lost in that discussion is the distinction that should be made between cost and price.

In fact, the overall cost of educating a student in Washington's public baccalaureate institutions, when measured in constant dollars, is actually slightly lower today than it was 20 years ago. In higher education, we are being efficient with the dollars we have to spend. As public agencies, we are accountable and transparent.

Despite our success in controlling costs, the price of attending a public university — that is, tuition — has increased sharply. It is a simple equation. The state is paying less; students must pay much more.

In my talks in Olympia, in discussions in communities around Washington and with students on WSU's four campuses, I have stressed that our current policy on tuition is not sustainable. We cannot keep shifting more of the burden to students and their parents.

In 2000, annual tuition amounted to 7.8 percent of the state's median income. It has now doubled, to more than 15 percent.

That is why tuition flexibility cannot be an end in itself. It must be one part of a policy that stops the tuition spiral for our students and reinstates access as a cornerstone of our state's higher-education strategy.

Elson S. Floyd is president of Washington State University.

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