by Cara Cardner

During the summer, most university students don't think too hard about school. But recent budget cuts and tuition increases in some of Washington state's universities are leaving students, faculty and staff worried about what the fall might hold.

Eastern Washington University recently announced a 7 percent tuition increase for students registered for the 2003-04 school year, offsetting a revenue reduction of almost $3 million. EWU also announced it may close the EWU Spokane Center, which would save the university about $400,000 annually.

"The Washington legislature has been reducing its allocations to state colleges and universities," says Stefanie Pettit, EWU spokeswoman. "At the same time, they are giving [state universities] permission to increase tuition."

Washington State University is also increasing tuition. Karl Boehmke, executive budget director for WSU, says the university set the increases according to enrollment status.

"The increase for resident undergraduate students is 7 percent and nonresident undergraduates is five percent," Boehmke says. "The increase is not enough to offset the budget cuts, but it's important to protect the quality of programs."

Tuition increases have become an annual tradition at state universities, like rush week and homecoming. Last year, EWU increased tuition by 14 percent; WSU by 16 percent.

Though tuition has shot up nearly every year since the mid '80s, this is the fourth year in a row the Washington legislature has allowed state colleges and universities to determine the increase percentage based on its recommendation.

Rom Markin, interim chancellor for WSU-Spokane, says the increasing cost of a university education is lamentable. "I honestly would not have been able to go to school in the circumstances these kids face today."

But as Markin points out, raising the price of higher education doesn't fix the problem of ever-rising costs to universities.

"The universities are really caught in both directions," Boehmke agrees. "State funding is dropping, but the costs are increasing."

Universities are cutting expenses in addition to hoisting tuition. For both EWU and WSU, this means layoffs.

"We've tightened the belt as tight as we can and are at the point where we'll be laying off some people," says Pettit. "We're at a place where we have no choice."

EWU's budget reductions will affect about 80 positions, most of which are non-teaching jobs. Pettit says the university doesn't know which positions will be cut, adding that many vacant positions will remain unfilled. WSU will also resort to layoffs, though right now it's unclear how many.

Pettit says EWU's board will soon decide whether its Spokane Center will close. "If that decision should be made, it would not [close] this year. We have classes scheduled, and they will start as they should on the day they're supposed to start," she says.

Boehmke says many criticize universities for the increasing cost of higher education, but they don't understand that universities are being crunched by the state. "We're still spending the same number of dollars, or fewer dollars, per student," he says. "Back in the '70s, it was by state law that [students pay] 25 percent of the cost. Throughout the '90s and into the new century, even when times were good, the state of Washington kept dialing back the percentage they were willing to pay for. Now students are paying for more than 50 percent of the costs."

Despite that, state universities are seeing record enrollment numbers.

"The demand is just higher," Pettit says. "When the economy is bad, more people go back to school to finish that degree they never got, or get a master's, or to retrain. More and more people need higher education than ever before."

Boehmke agrees. He admits that even as the university struggles with budget cuts, it is turning students away.

"It's unfortunate for the state that at the very time the number of students demanding a higher education is at record numbers, the funding to the universities is being cut," Boehmke says. "We should be expanding [our enrollment], but it would be unfair to the students if we took in more students than we could provide quality programs for."

Publication date: 07/10/03

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