Start fixing how it’s funded

It’s no surprise that tuition at the University of Washington and Washington State University will go up another 16 percent this coming fall. WSU made that decision last month, and the UW announced on Thursday that it will follow suit.

Washington’s support for higher education was already declining compared with peer states before the recession ravaged state revenues. Because higher education isn’t protected by the state Constitution or federal funding rules, it became a big target for cuts by the Legislature. Lawmakers have slashed higher ed by about half in the past four years, leaving tuition increases the only way to maintain any semblance of quality instruction on state campuses.

This trendline must be reversed, or we’re going to sink our own economic future.

It was encouraging, then, that as UW regents announced the latest double-digit tuition hike, they also issued a strongly worded and unanimous declaration that the state’s funding construct for higher education is broken, and must be addressed.

Yes, they were only stating the obvious. But if this is the beginning of a loud, public campaign to stop the erosion of our own future prosperity — maybe even to start rebuilding it — it’s a welcome statement.

More students already are leaving college with crushing debt —whether or not they graduate — and in the current job market, their chances of ever getting ahead can appear dim. Their burden is already too great; further double-digit tuition hikes aren’t sustainable.

In their declaration, UW regents said enough is enough. Over the past two decades, they noted, the state’s share of an undergraduate education has declined from 80 percent to 30 percent. The student’s share has increased from 20 percent to 70 percent. Making college unaffordable to average families is no way to build economic prosperity.

We applauded the Legislature’s decision this year to direct $7.6 million to the UW and WSU to increase engineering enrollment by 29 percent. Washington’s aerospace sector is threatened by the impending retirement of roughly half of Boeing’s engineers, and the state must act to protect one of its primary economic drivers.

But such modest investments pale in comparison to the practical abandonment of serious state support for higher education in recent years. That has to change. The UW regents are right: new sources of revenue are required. Our state’s future is at stake.

Candidates for governor and the Legislature need to be ready to discuss their ideas for finding new revenue and amply funding higher education — even if it means new taxes. If they oppose taxes as a solution, they must outline meaningful, reliable alternatives.

Simply throwing up their hands can no longer be considered good enough.