By Shawna Leader/The AS Review

As public institutions of higher education discuss the governor’s proposed budget cuts, local tuition-setting authority is an option supported by some college administrations as a way to mitigate the negative effects of the cuts.

Currently, tuition-setting authority rests with the State legislature, but if the legislature votes to grant local tuition-setting authority, the board of trustees at each school would set tuition.

Western’s administration supports local tuition-setting authority, as does Governor Christine Gregoire, but if it should be granted is still in discussion.

“Up until this point, the state has treated all of the four-years the same way, like one size fits all … but that doesn’t really reflect how institutions can respond individually to those types of things,” Phil Sharpe, chair of the Western board of trustees, said. “We want to be able to look at tuition-setting authority with respect to the strengths, weaknesses and needs of each of the institutions.”

The people who know the most about the university and its ability to respond and adapt to budget cuts are the administration and the board of trustees, Sharpe said. Universities can only respond to the decisions made by the State legislature and local tuition-setting authority is another way to do so, he said.

AS Vice President for Governmental Affairs Morgan Holmgren said that local tuition-setting authority will eliminate one of the last ties between public colleges in Washington state. Tuition ties the schools together, he said.

“When you eliminate the last strands of that connection between institutions, what we’re going to see is each institution take off in its own way and we’re going to have an even less centralized higher education system, which is already a very decentralized system,” Holmgren said.

Local tuition-setting authority sends the message that Western does not trust the legislature to set the budget, Holmgren said.

“If as an institution we want to restore our status as a truly public institution and an institution that’s serving the needs of the people of Washington, we need to be working to the point where the legislature feels comfortable funding us because they trust us. And to the point where we’re working together as a state to improve Washington and to improve the quality of our higher education system, rather than improving one individual campus, then another individual campus, in all different ways,” Holmgren said.

The board of trustees is not accountable to the parents and students of Western in the same way that state legislators are, Holmgren said. He also expressed concerns that tuition would increase over time without regard to the state budget.

“If we allow for tuition to stay in control of the legislature, the legislature can plan for making a transition back to the point where we’re majority state funded. But in any situation where the university has control over tuition, any increase in funding from the state won’t be met with a lower tuition increase,” Holmgren said.

Two bills concerning local tuition-setting authority have been proposed by Washington state senators. Senator Derek Kilmer’s bill allows for local tuition-setting authority, but with certain stipulations on the increases of tuition over time. Senator Ken Jacobsen’s bill supports local tuition-setting authority without limits.

It is a misconception to think that the board of trustees is out of touch and not concerned with making college accessible, Sharpe said.

“There’s a mistaken belief that the whole idea is to just take the lid off tuition and then it can be raised to a level that is unaffordable,” Sharpe said.  “That’s not the goal at all. The truth of the matter is, it costs a certain amount of money to deliver an education. … If the state’s contribution toward that drops, then we either have to shrink our institution, shrink our offerings, reduce our quality or look for other sources for revenues.”

It is likely that the legislature will place limits on local tuition-setting authority, Sharpe said.

The governor supports local tuition-setting authority because, in these unprecedented times, local tuition-setting authority is a management tool for the institutions of higher education, said Leslie Goldstein, public policy adviser for Governor Gregoire, speaking on behalf of the governor.

Few states allow the legislature to set tuition, Goldstein said. In Washington, the board of trustees at each public university already sets tuition for out-of-state and graduate students, she said.

“It’s not the authority itself but it’s how it’s exercised and what the increases are,” Goldstein said.

Students would still have the ability to communicate any concerns about local tuition-setting authority to the legislature, Goldstein said. If local tuition-setting authority becomes a problem in the future, the legislature can take it away, she said.

“If there isn’t the ability to provide state support, tuition’s one of the other tools to be able to provide them [students] quality education. Granted, it can’t go too high and it shouldn’t substitute in the long run for adequate state support,” Goldstein said.

According to Holmgren, state funding is preferred over student funding in the form of tuition. However, this year was the first in which funding from tuition surpassed funding from the state. Tuition accounted for 51 percent of funding, state funding accounted for 43 percent and the rest was federal stimulus dollars, Holmgren said.

Ensuring that tuition stays low is not a viable option, Sharpe said. Tuition has surpassed state funding because state funding has decreased, he said.

“[Keeping tuition low] doesn’t allow us to maintain the core of the institution, it doesn’t allow us to maintain quality educational offerings and it doesn’t allow us to make a sufficient number of offerings to have a reasonable time to degree,” he said.

Budget cuts decrease class offerings, which extends the time to degree, Sharpe said. This increases the overall cost of education because students have to stay in school longer, he said.
The state has to generate financial aid, but if financial aid is structured correctly, it can cover more students and offset tuition increases, Sharpe said. But, high tuition costs may squeeze out middle class students who are not eligible for aid and cannot pay high tuition costs, he said.

Holmgren suggested that the Higher Education Coordinating (HEC) board receive tuition proposals from each university and then make recommendations to the legislature. Or, each university could make proposals to the state and a committee would set up a proposal to the state that would require an up or down vote and no amendments, Holmgren said. Processes like this would allow for greater predictability in terms of tuition, he said.

The situation with the budget is unchartered territory, Sharpe said. No models exist to follow and the administration is currently discussing efficiency and ways to increase cost effectiveness, he said.

“We have to be accountable, there’s no question about that,” he said.