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Originally published Monday, January 7, 2013 at 9:04 PM

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Higher-ed tuition freeze offered for more state funding

Washington's six public-college presidents say they will freeze tuition levels for the next two years if the Legislature will increase higher-education funding by $225 million.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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Washington's public-university presidents say they have a deal for the Legislature: If lawmakers will restore $225 million in state funding to higher education, the schools won't raise tuition for the next two years.

The proposal, from the state's six higher-education presidents, comes a few weeks after outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire set a goal of no tuition increases for the next biennium. But her budget included no additional money for the five universities and one four-year college, The Evergreen State College.

That budget was "full of assumptions that are not likely to happen," said state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, 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.

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

And those tuition increases have had some unintended consequences. The state has had to pour millions of additional dollars into the State Need Grant, the largest state program that aids low-income students. And it's one of the main reasons behind a shortfall in the state's Guaranteed Education Tuition program, a prepaid tuition program with a payout pegged to the highest tuition at a state university.

"Everything's connected; it really is," said Bruce Shepard, president of Western Washington University.

Shepard, who is heading the Council of Presidents this year, said the presidents want the state to return to a time when 50 percent of the funding for in-state undergraduate tuition came from state dollars and 50 percent from tuition dollars. Currently, about 67 percent of the cost of going to a four-year public college in Washington is borne by students and their families, with the state picking up the remainder.

The state budgeted about $1 billion for the six four-year schools for 2011-13, about as much as it budgeted for higher education in 1989-91. An infusion of $225 million would bring funding levels back to about what they were in 2009.

Earlier, Washington State University President Elson Floyd proposed raising WSU tuition by a cost-of-living increase if the Legislature would keep funding levels unchanged.

"When we first heard that in the fall, we were really excited about that — we were starting to feel there was something being done about tuition increases," said Tristan Hanon, director of legislative affairs for the Associated Students of Washington State University. The Council of Presidents' idea advances the idea further, he said.

"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.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

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