With the elections over, attention in Olympia is returning to the business of governing as the January legislative session approaches. This is a budget writing year for the governor and our legislators, and the fiscal challenges of the past four years will be with us once again.
One of the biggest challenges is funding higher education. We have seen state funding erode and the burden of paying for higher education shift dramatically to students and their families. This fundamental change in the funding model for higher education has sustained us in the short-term, but it is not a viable model for the long-term.
Last June, the University of Washington Board of Regents, on which I am proud to serve, took the unprecedented step of adopting a "Declaration of Concern for the Sustainability of Washington Public Higher Education." We did so in the belief that the current system of funding our institutions is broken and needs to be fixed if we are to provide for future generations the educational opportunities we all have enjoyed. The declaration reached the following conclusions:
1. Public higher education is an essential ingredient of a functioning democracy and a healthy economy, but the state financial construct for its funding is broken and not sustainable.
2. Contrary to the foundational notion of an educated citizenry being a benefit to society that is worthy of encouragement, the erosion of state funding over many years, and the recent precipitous decline, have radically and unduly shifted the burden of financing the higher education system to students, who increasingly accomplish this by incurring family and personal debt.
3. If Washington is to maintain affordable access to quality higher education for its citizens, then something has to change. The state's financial and revenue structures will need to be reformed so as to create a funding mechanism that is sufficient to provide the opportunity for higher learning to a broad spectrum of Washingtonians.
The double-digit tuition increases of the past few years have not been the result of cost increases at high-quality state institutions such as the University of Washington and Western Washington University. The cost of educating a UW student is actually about $400 less today, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than it was 20 years ago. Tuition has gone up entirely because of the shift in who pays the cost: 20 years ago, the state paid 80 percent and a student paid 20 percent. Today, the state pays 30 percent and a student 70.
The Regents truly appreciate the hard work of the governor, the legislature, and many in the business, civic and higher education communities who helped put a halt to further cuts in public higher education and gave us additional administrative tools to help us manage through the current crisis. Despite these efforts, the shift in who pays for higher education has turned upside down the historic role our state has played in providing affordable, high-quality higher education to its citizens. We have systematically disinvested in our children's future, and we view this trend with great disappointment and alarm.
The Regents believe change must come to how we fund higher education and are committed to advocating strongly for the following:
Reform of the state's financial and revenue structures so as to provide a viable, dedicated stream of support for access to an affordable, quality public higher education for Washington's residents;
Sustained commitment of federal and state financial aid so that education can remain a viable path for upward social mobility;
The authority of the university to manage its assets, revenues and institutional affairs in an efficient, flexible and expeditious manner to insure we optimize their benefits and provide clear value for our students as well as transparency to the public;
The prudent and cost-effective utilization of university resources.
As Regents, we call upon the civic and political leaders of this state, as well as the public at large, to work in common to shape the change that is necessary to protect and nurture the future dreams and opportunities of Washington's citizens.
Craig Cole, a Bellingham business consultant, was appointed to the University of Washington Board of Regents by then-Gov. Gary Locke and reappointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire.