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Originally published Sunday, June 24, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Washington state's broken model for higher-education funding

Public higher education is an essential ingredient of a functioning democracy and a healthy economy, writer two members of the University of Washington Board of Regents, but the current financial model for its funding is broken and not sustainable.

Special to The Times

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THIS can't go on. That is our sentiment after adopting another annual budget for the University of Washington that includes a 16 percent tuition increase for resident undergraduates. This is the fourth year in a row our students have seen a double-digit tuition increase.

As stewards of our state's largest institution of higher education, we believe these increases were absolutely necessary to maintain the quality of education that has served the citizens of this state so well for 150 years. But the increases do not address the fundamental problems facing public higher education in Washington.

Serving on the UW Board of Regents is a great privilege that comes with incredible responsibility. Our board members are not only the fiduciaries of the institution; we are business people, civic volunteers, alumni and even parents of UW students. As we've navigated our way through this financial crisis, we've continually examined the same questions as other state taxpayers: Why is tuition increasing faster than inflation? Are the university's costs out of control? Is there going to be a spot for my kid or grandkid at the university? Here's the truth:

The cost of educating a student at the University of Washington is about $400 less today, in inflation adjusted dollars, than it was 20 years ago. As executives and directors of large business and philanthropic organizations in Washington state, our board members can attest that this could not have happened without a strong commitment to efficiency and cost control.

The next time anyone questions why public university tuition is rising faster than inflation, remember this: Twenty years ago, the state government paid 80 percent of the cost of a student's education and a student paid 20 percent. Today, the state pays 30 percent of the cost, and the student pays 70 percent. The state has systematically disinvested in our children's future, and we view this trend with disappointment and alarm.

We truly appreciate the hard work of the governor, the Legislature and many others who work in the business, civic and education communities who this year helped put a halt to further cuts in public higher education and gave us the tools and flexibility needed to help us manage through the current crisis. However, losing half of our state funding over just a few years has radically and unduly shifted the burden of financing the higher-education system to students, who are taking on more and more family and personal debt. This debt load restrains the ability of many Washingtonians to fully pursue life's opportunities.

Public higher education is an essential ingredient of a functioning democracy and a healthy economy, but the current financial model for its funding is broken and not sustainable. If Washington is to maintain affordable access to quality higher education for its citizens, something has to change.

Given the state's current fiscal situation — which we deem unlikely to change soon for the better on its own — our board members intend to work collaboratively with a broad spectrum of educational, economic and citizen interests in advocating strongly for the following:

• Reform of the state's financial framework to ensure continued access to a high-quality education for Washington's residents;

• Sustained commitment of federal and state financial aid;

• The ability for the UW to manage its assets, revenues and institutional affairs with increased flexibility, speed and austerity; and

• The continued prudent and cost-effective utilization of university resources.

As UW regents, we call upon the civic and political leaders of this state, as well as the public at large, to work together to ensure the highest quality education, provide broad access to educational opportunity, and produce graduates who will advance the well-being and prosperity of the state of Washington.

Kristianne Blake, left, and Craig W. Cole are members of the University of Washington Board of Regents. Blake is the board's 2011-2012 chair.

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