Friday, April 8, 2011

Senate bill would grant tuition flexibility linked to stronger accountability requirements

A new bill that would give public four-year institutions six years of expanded tuition-setting authority for resident undergraduate students was heard in the Senate Ways & Means Committee on Wednesday.
SB 5915 also would require the HECB to collaborate with institutions and other higher education entities to create a baccalaureate degree incentive program to award institutions that make progress on various performance measures, such as bachelor’s degree production. Actual awards would depend on funds being available for that purpose.
The expanded tuition authority in SB 5915 would be linked to a requirement that the institutions enter into negotiated performance contracts with the HECB and the Office of Financial Management. Those contracts would specify performance outcomes in a number of areas, including degree completion, low-income student retention and completion, resident student degree completion and expected degree production in high demand and critical state need areas.
Failure to complete a contract or to achieve the outcomes established in the contracts would prevent an institution from raising tuition in the next biennium above specified levels without legislative approval.
In addition, institutions that chose to raise tuition above those specified levels (11 percent per year at the UW, WSU and WWU, and 9 percent per year at CWU, EWU and The Evergreen State College) would be required to mitigate the impact on students with annual incomes below 125 percent of median family income. Currently, that is $94,000 per year for a family of four.
Students who meet the income requirement could receive several forms of financial aid from the institutions, including set-aside tuition revenue, tuition waivers, or money provided through institutional financial aid programs.
At the public hearing, SB 5915 was generally supported by the state’s four-year institutions and by Washington business representatives who participated in a Higher Education Funding Task Force convened last year by Gov. Chris Gregoire. Among other things, the task force recommended giving institutions greater tuition-setting authority as a way to preserve educational quality in a time of significant cuts to state higher education funding. 
Because of the difficult budget challenges colleges and universities are facing, several business and institutional representatives urged the committee Wednesday to grant increased tuition flexibility starting in 2011, rather than waiting until 2013 as called for in the bill.
“At the UW, we need to do this now,” UW representative Margaret Shephard told the committee.  “Two years from now, we could look like a very different institution.”
Don Bennett, HECB executive director, also spoke in favor of the bill.  Providing more flexible tuition-setting authority during the six-year period from 2013 through 2019 is critical to enabling the institutions to weather the current funding crisis, he said. Bennett also noted the bill has a strong focus on accountability and gives the HECB an appropriate role in monitoring results.
Another provision in the bill, whose prime sponsor is Sen. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, would allow four-year institutions to charge differential tuition rates for students participating in specific programs, campuses or courses. The State Board for Community and Technical Colleges would be authorized to pilot or institute differential tuition models at community and technical colleges.
Public four-year institutions also would be required to provide the HECB with data on such measures as bachelor’s degrees awarded, graduate and professional degrees awarded, graduation rates, and transfer rates. The data could be used to compare similar information gathered in other states. Having such comparable data is a goal of the National Governor’s Association’s Complete to Compete Initiative.  An article on the initiative was posted earlier in the HECB Legislative Report.

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