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Elson S. Floyd, Ph.D. - 1/26/10

On Tuition-Setting Authority

Should the governing boards of Washington colleges and universities have more authority to set tuition for their institutions? In the early days of this legislative session, that seems to have become the highest-profile higher education issue in Olympia and statewide.

I fully understand the level of interest. Rising tuition, and its impact on access to a college education, is a vital concern to our students and a major issue impacting the economic future of our state.

However, I have more trouble understanding the point of view that preserving the status quo, and continuing to give governing boards little control over tuition, is a realistic solution to this crisis.

I was in Olympia last week and testified in support of Senate Bill 6562, which would grant greater tuition-setting authority to governing boards. It sets limits on how much tuition can be raised, ties tuition increases to specific education goals, and requires a percentage of the resulting revenue to go toward financial aid.

This bill is one of several on this subject that are pending before the Legislature. It is the one I support because I believe it provides necessary flexibility while still imposing reasonable guidelines.

Currently, governing boards have what is called limited tuition-setting authority. In reality, however, our budgets from the state are based on raising tuition a certain amount. The current budget calls on us to increase undergraduate resident tuition by 14 percent in each of the two years of the biennium. That was written into our budget; adopting a lower rate of increase would have meant that more programs and jobs would have been lost. We had little real discretion.

I realize that some student groups oppose Senate Bill 6562, because they believe that the bill will lead to an even-faster rate of tuition increases. They see it as an accountability issue; they believe they have more influence over the decisions made in Olympia than over decisions made by the leadership and the governing boards of their institutions.

I must admit that I think they have that backward. Look at the way our university, for example, establishes rates for its housing and dining and services and activities fees. Boards made up of students and administrators discuss the issues, consider the trade-offs involved in setting the fees at various levels and make their recommendations to the Board of Regents. However, on the biggest fee facing our students — tuition — we have little choice but to implement the recommendation sent from Olympia.

As I told the Senate committee last week, a university’s administration and governing board is much closer to the issues affecting that particular institution than the Legislature can ever be. That is not a criticism of our legislators. They have an entire state to manage; we have a university to run. And shared governance — the involvement of faculty, staff and students in our decision-making process — is a cornerstone of what we do here.

If difficult decisions need to be made about tuition levels, I would prefer that we at WSU make those decisions collaboratively, explain the reasons behind them and be held accountable for the results.

I don’t know which tuition-setting bill, if any, will make it through the legislative process. Lawmakers face an uncertain economic environment and many issues are on the agenda. At the very least, however, I think these bills have sparked an important discussion about higher-education finance in Washington. The system is broken; we need to look carefully at ways to fix it.

To view President Floyd’s testimony regarding Senate Bill 6562, click here: