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Originally published April 29, 2013 at 5:13 PM | Page modified April 29, 2013 at 5:11 PM

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Guest: Blind alleys in the state budget on college tuition

Several fundamental misperceptions about college tuition are sending Republican and Democratic budget writers down blind alleys, writes guest columnist Ron Erickson.

Special to The Times

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LAWMAKERS face the daunting task of equipping public universities to meet Washington’s demand for college graduates. But several fundamental misperceptions, particularly about tuition, are sending Republican and Democratic budget writers down blind alleys.

Policymakers have agreed that tuition has increased too rapidly in the past three years. But double-digit tuition increases were written into the state budget by legislators to partly backfill cuts to university budgets of more than 50 percent in just three years.

It was the best of a few miserable alternatives. But lawmakers did what they had to do to avoid the utter destruction of public higher education. Legislators have a chance to make better choices when the special session begins May 13.

The relationship between tuition and the state’s prepaid tuition plan also has become muddled. The popular Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) allows families to buy tomorrow’s tuition at today’s rate. The value of GET units is the highest resident undergraduate tuition at the most expensive state public university, the University of Washington. It is upward adjustments in UW’s tuition rates that drive higher GET reimbursements.

Tuition at comprehensive universities and community colleges is as much as $4,000 per year less than the cost of attending research institutions. There is significant variance in tuition flexibility among the six baccalaureate institutions, flexibility the Legislature could leverage without affecting the GET program in the slightest.

GET solvency relies on the ability of actuaries to anticipate tuition increases. It’s not increases in tuition that threaten this program. Rather, GET depends upon tuition rates that are reasonable and predictable, which has not been true over the past three years.

One attempt to leash tuition increases has been to link increases to the rate of inflation. But it is not inflation that has compelled the increases — state cuts and recent state policy have driven tuition up. It makes sense to link tuition to state funding or lack of funding. But inflation is no more the cause of tuition increases than for higher rates for state park passes, bridge tolls or fishing licenses.

State funding used to be apportioned per student; each university received a certain amount of state support for each student enrolled. That policy went down the drain with the economy in 2008. When jobs disappeared, so did state funding for higher education, even though people returned to college in droves.

The state budget still says my school, Central Washington University, is funded for 8,808 students, but we’re actually serving closer to 10,000. Believe it or not, comprehensive universities such as CWU, Western Washington University and Eastern Washington University receive less funding per student, about $2,560, than community colleges do, which receive $2,850 per student, and less than half of what the state spends per K-12 student at $6,400. The state provides about the same amount per student to comprehensive universities as it did in 1991, when a gallon of gas was $1.23 and a movie ticket cost $4.

Tuition rose quickly because state support fell quickly. The GET program can thrive if tuition increases are reasonable and predictable. Washington needs more university degrees per capita than any other state, but we produce fewer than just about any other. It won’t be easy, but it will be impossible unless we inform policy with facts.

Ron Erickson is a trustee at Central Washington University, where he received his B.A. He is a Bainbridge Island resident, and a Seattle attorney and businessman.

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