By V. Lane Rawlins, President, Washington State University

PULLMAN, Wash. — Public higher education in Washington today is a good value for students, the public interest, and the businesses and industries that depend on our graduates and our research. Without a long-term plan for development and funding, however, that positive picture is seriously threatened.

Tuition has traditionally been low in our state, a benefit both to college students and the state’s employers. Even today, resident undergraduate students at Washington State University pay tuition right near the average charged by the 22 public universities that are considered our peers. These are all land grant universities with veterinary colleges. Peer universities with similar tuition rates to ours include Purdue, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Virginia Tech and Texas A & M.

Low tuition and good public support have allowed us to create good public universities in our state. In addition to the opportunities for a great education and the provision of a highly skilled workforce, our universities conduct critical research on which our economy depends. And we have done it well enough to be among the leaders in the nation.

Recently, however, the trend is to lower taxes, increase expenditures in other areas, and reduce the budgets for higher education. Now, after a series of reductions and tuition increases that partially offset those changes, the quality of our public higher education system is threatened by additional cuts, high increases in tuition and no clear plan for the future. Classes may not be available, programs may be reduced or eliminated, and enrollment will have to be limited. We may even find accreditation of some of our key programs threatened. And this while students are paying more.

Given the bleak revenue picture for our state, we know that we will have to take some cuts in the short term, even if tuition is increased. A combination of cuts and tuition increases may be the only short-term defense against threats to our academic programs.

However, we will strenuously oppose tuition increases of 20-30 percent, as some in higher education and government are discussing. Students today are already carrying a bigger share of the cost of their education than their predecessors did, paying 42 percent of the cost, up from 33 percent a decade ago.

We must have a long-term plan for the development and funding of public higher education in Washington, in order to serve the needs of students, employers and the state as a whole. Public higher education is as great a benefit to the state’s corporations, agencies and public schools as it is to individual students, and it must be funded based on that clear understanding.

Tuition increases are necessary for next year, but tuition is not the whole answer. Continued decline of public support for higher education would mean that many students could not attend college. Each student who is turned away is a cost to all Washingtonians.

I urge you to join with me in calling on Governor Locke and the legislature for a long-term plan for funding higher education in Washington. We should expect a higher education system that provides a strong education for this and future generations of students and helps create an intellectual and research environment that will keep Washington prosperous.

Our problems are here and now. In the coming year, we and other state universities will lose strong faculty because of a lack of funding, many students will be turned away from college because the programs are full and serious hardship will be forced on others because of rising costs. We cannot afford to sacrifice our future in this way.