Tuesday, May 28, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

State's fiscal crisis puts UW in jeopardy

Special to The Times

Washington's colleges and universities are in trouble. State support is dwindling, costs for students are rising, colleges and universities are forced to offer less for more, and there seems to be no relief in sight. At the University of Washington, these developments are particularly challenging.

Over the past quarter century, the UW has established itself among the top public research universities in the nation, providing a unique educational opportunity to Washington citizens and bringing to the state and our communities all the benefits of a world-class research institution. These include fueling innovation in the new knowledge-based economy, finding causes and cures for the most intractable diseases, and identifying solutions to many of the pressing problems we face in our region.

These public benefits derive from the kind of faculty we have at the UW, the kind of programs they can offer, and the kind of students we can attract. The current fiscal climate in the state and at the university, however, places these benefits in jeopardy. The question we must ask ourselves is, does Washington really want a world-class research university, and if it does, how can it afford one?

A number of complex factors have led to the current crisis in funding higher education in our state. Decisions by voters reducing or redirecting taxes are forcing reductions in state services and some very hard choices by legislators. These choices have become even more difficult because of the recent economic slowdown. It is worth noting, however, that even during the prosperous times of the 1990s, the state did not invest in its higher education institutions the way other states were doing. So, at the dawn of the new century, the University of Washington finds itself at a serious disadvantage compared to similar universities.

In 1991, the university's state tax funding was slightly below the average of a group of 24 public research universities identified by the Higher Education Coordinating Board as an acceptable group of comparison institutions. The list includes the universities of North Carolina, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio State and 19 others. Today, the UW ranks 20 out of 24 in this group, more than $2,000 in state support per student less than the average of this important comparison group.

This means we are asked to do the same job as these other research universities, producing the same results and contributing to our state in all the ways they contribute to theirs for, on average, $75 million less per year. That is a lot of money we do without. And increasingly, it means a lot of educational resources our students will do without.

How are we going to continue to pay for higher education and maintain its quality in these fiscally stringent times? In the recently concluded legislative session, the university, like other state agencies, took a significant budget reduction — $25 million in fiscal 2003. (And the Legislature did not say, because we are reducing your funding, you can educate fewer students.) So, we must provide students the education they expect with fewer dollars in an already chronically underfunded institution.

These are the forces that drive tuition upward. The university's Board of Regents has the authority this year to increase tuition within parameters established by the Legislature, and it took that step at its meeting May 17. Tuition at the UW traditionally has been relatively low, currently about $3,600 a year for a college education at one of the nation's premier public research universities. But in order to compensate partially for the budget reductions, tuition next year will increase by $574, to about $4,200 a year for resident undergraduate students, our largest cohort of students by far.

To some, this is still a bargain; to others, it represents a significant increase that will make it even more difficult to attend. The state of Washington and the university have always been committed to providing financial aid sufficient to accommodate students whose financial needs increase as tuition goes up. The state and the university will continue to do so by allocating a portion of the increased tuition to deal with financial need.

These are short-term but necessary steps to keep the university operating at a slightly reduced level of service. But it is not a long-term solution, and the clouds sit heavy on the horizon as we contemplate the future financing of the University of Washington.

We need to figure this out in our state. Public higher education is a public good. While it is true that individual students enhance their opportunities for personal success by graduating from college, it is also true that our whole society benefits from higher education. Our colleges and universities produce an educated citizenry, a thriving knowledge-based economy, and the solutions to regional and global problems.

Should the state continue to invest in this public good, and to what degree? What should we expect taxpayers to support in higher education? How much of the burden can we reasonably shift to students and their families? Should they pay all of it? Is public higher education no longer a viable concept and should we be looking to other models?

I am a firm believer in the public in public higher education. We have an obligation to afford the opportunities and benefits of a higher education to as many citizens as possible. As we reduce the university's budget, however, we will not be able to provide the same quality of education to as many students. Will there be room at the inn for our children? It is a serious question we must consider. And if there is room, what kind of education will be available at the level of funding our state currently provides? Not what we expect and not what our children deserve.

Richard L. McCormick is president of the University of Washington.


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