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Originally published Tuesday, July 5, 2011 at 3:41 PM

Guest columnist

Tuition increases now, but state must reverse downward spiral of higher-ed funding

Tuition hikes at Washington's public universities were necessary this year because of dire state budget cuts. But guest columnist Neil McReynolds said elected state officials must reverse this downward spiral of state funding to keep the state's higher-education system strong.

Special to The Times

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AMID unprecedented state budget cuts, the boards of the state's six four-year public higher-education institutions have made the tough decision recently to increase tuition rates, ranging from 11 to 20 percent.

As vice chair of the Eastern Washington University governing board and a Seattle businessman, I closely watched the budget events unfold in the Legislature with great concern.

Increasing tuition by any amount is one of the most difficult votes any board member must make. While polarizing, the latest tuition increases are also necessary during this crippling economic climate. Amid the dramatic decline in state support, we must sustain a viable educational system that produces graduates to meet our employment needs, a key factor in our state's economic-development strategy.

Eastern's governing board approved a tuition rate increase of 11 percent, the lowest increase of any of Washington's four-year public universities this year. What made this vote especially difficult is that half of EWU's students are the first in their family to attend college, and 20 percent of the student body comes from underrepresented backgrounds.

As a board, we felt strongly our tuition hike would keep the cost of an education affordable and allow us to strategically direct our resources to high-demand programs. For instance, EWU President Rodolfo Arévalo believes the best course of action at this time is to focus on fewer curriculum areas, providing quality rather than quantity. This is especially important since we are facing another year of record enrollments.

Higher tuition also means our institutions can put more resources into student success, such as academic-support services. This will allow schools like Eastern to focus more on retention, improving the time it takes to earn a degree and ultimately, on improving graduation rates. This in turn will keep overall education costs down.

But we are at a crossroads. At Eastern we have already cut administrative staff, eliminated positions, increased class sizes, consolidated the colleges within the university from six to four and cut low-priority programs and degrees.

If this budget crisis continues, the "cost" of further reductions to higher education will be even more devastating. Additional cuts to the small base of state support will adversely impact educational quality and the ability of all universities to attract and retain quality faculty. More cuts will limit our ability to maintain our aging residence halls and other facilities. More than anything, students and their families will find it increasingly difficult to absorb double-digit tuition increases.

This is why I am so concerned about the future of higher education in this state and what it will mean for our economy in the long term. What should be done?

As a businessman, I am confident our state's economy will improve and increased state revenues will follow. However, the governor and the Legislature must reverse this downward spiral and devote more than just 3 percent of the state budget to higher education.

From my perspective, it's a question of priorities. Why has higher education had a declining share of the state budget? Is higher education a high priority for this state? Does our state leadership really believe that the key to our future is a well-educated work force?

As we head into a new election cycle, these are questions all of us should be asking candidates if we really want to see higher education become a priority in this state again.

As stewards of the higher-education system, those of us on university boards will continue to encourage our institutions to come up with cost-saving solutions without compromising the ability to deliver a high-quality education. But we need the help of all of those who are concerned about the future of this state.

Neil McReynolds is vice chair of the governing board of Eastern Washington University and chair of the board's Business & Finance Committee, which oversees the budget.

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