State universities want to cut a deal with lawmakers

SEATTLE — Washington’s public university presidents are offering to compromise with the state Legislature over money for higher education. The six presidents say they will agree to freeze tuition for the next two years if the state infuses $225 million into their budgets.

The proposal comes two weeks after outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire’s set a goal of no tuition increases in her proposed state budget. Her proposal included no additional money for the six public four-year schools.

That budget was “full of assumptions that are not likely to happen,” said state Rep. Ross Hunter, chairman of the House Ways &Means Committee.

“Do I think it will be difficult to find $225 million? Yes,” Hunter said. “But can we continue to do this long-term destruction of the higher-ed system? No.”

The state is already predicting a $900 million shortfall for the next biennium, and a Supreme Court ruling concerning money for the state’s K-12 education system will force the Legislature to find an estimated $1 billion to invest in public schools during this session.

Washington schools have raised tuition by double-digit amounts each year over the past two biennia. A year of undergraduate tuition at the University of Washington now costs nearly double what it did five years ago.

Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard said Washington’s university leaders want the state to return to a time when 50 percent of the cost to educate undergraduates came from the state and 50 percent came from tuition dollars.

Currently, nearly 70 percent of the cost comes from tuition and 30 percent from the state budget. The state budgeted about $1 billion for the six, four-year schools for 2011-13, about the same amount it budgeted for higher education in 1989-91. An extra $225 million in cash would bring the state contribution to about what it was in 2009.

Tristan Hanon, director of legislative affairs for the Associated Students of Washington State University, said students have been heartened by the university presidents’ conversations with lawmakers this fall.

“I think it’s going to be a tough fight, but I think a lot of legislators are starting to realize that this trend of disinvestment needs to stop,” he said.

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