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Originally published Thursday, May 10, 2012 at 4:18 PM

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State's students need a break from unending tuition increases

The University of Washington and Washington State University need to raise tuition by 16 percent to recover from steep state disinvestment over years. But students must get a break from the cycle of rate hikes.

Seattle Times Editorial

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Washington state's public universities have struggled in recent years to survive draconian state budget cuts. Just-announced tuition hikes represent a painful but necessary opportunity for them to get by. For now.

That said, lawmakers and university officials must find ways, going forward, to relieve current and future students of the annual sticker shock over their soaring tuition bills.

Two steps are key to bolstering higher education in this state:

• The Legislature, to its credit, stepped up and did not cut higher education in its most recent supplemental budget — a model legislators should build on.

• The University of Washington and Washington State University are using their full authority to raise tuition by 16 percent.

The universities need the revenue. The state has slashed higher-education budgets by more than half since 2008. Lawmakers, who fought during a double-overtime legislative session to preserve higher-education funding, deserve much credit.

But the supplemental budget approved was based on tuition increases of up to 16 percent already embedded in the state's two-year budget to help schools make up for dwindling state funding. The deal essentially forced higher education to turn to their only other revenue source, tuition.

Western, Eastern and Central Washington universities, and The Evergreen State College are also raising tuition by varying, and lesser, amounts.

Parents know they are getting good quality and value at our state's public institutions. For the UW, tuition and fees will still be lower than at other states' flagship universities, such as the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia.

Our higher-education institutions are powerful economic engines. The public's dollars are an investment in a resource that pays. The next round of dividends from the UW will be the newly minted graduates at CenturyLink Field next month.

Higher-education leaders need to be mindful that we're reaching a tipping point on tuition. Excessive tuition increases are hefty taxes on young people already struggling with a painfully sluggish economic recovery.

The UW and WSU are committed to generous financial aid to maintain access. About 8,500 low-income UW students pay no tuition at all. Similarly laudable efforts exist at WSU. But students cannot sustain tuition hikes indefinitely.

Bold, long-term strategies must focus on a period of modest or no tuition increases. Student debt now surpasses other kinds of consumer debt, including car loans and credit-card debt.

Lawmakers should continue to protect higher education from budget cuts and eventually begin reinvesting. Schools must innovate, reform and look for opportunities to leverage their intellectual wealth.

The universities still need greater flexibility from onerous state rules. Lawmakers' modest step in the direction of more university autonomy needs to be built upon.

Our universities, led by WSU and UW, will be measured on how well they maintain quality and affordability while increasing slots so more state students get into our schools.

But it is unrealistic to expect universities to maintain their excellence in recruitment, retention and graduation rates when state investment is so lacking. Tuition increases are painful, but continue to be necessary in the short-term. But the Legislature should make sure that is not the case for much longer.

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