Gov. Gregoire today at Aki Kurose Middle School
  • E.S.
  • Gov. Gregoire today at Aki Kurose Middle School
This morning at Aki Kurose Middle School in south Seattle, Governor Christine Gregoire embraced a plan just released by her higher education funding task force, and she called on state legislators to give the state's publicly funded universities more freedom to raise tuition rates.

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State schools need to be more free to raise rates, she said, in order to stay competitive in an environment where there's less state money coming to them due to Washington's $4.6 billion budget shortfall.

"We have a challenge before us," Gregoire said. "Declining revenue, increased demand. We need to step up to it."

To make up for the fact that her proposal for solving this challenge means making tuition less affordable for many current and future college students—like, oh, the ones lined up behind her this morning as photo-op props—Gregoire noted that her task force also proposes the creation of a $1 billion fund, fed mainly by donations from major Washington businesses, that would offer more scholarships to needy students.

She also noted that while her proposal would give state universities much more freedom to raise their tuition rates, it would try to prevent an education at Washington's top schools from becoming more expensive than an education at their peer institutions in other states. For example, the University of Washington (where tuition is now $7,587) would be asked not to make itself more expensive than the flagship state schools in Virginia or Connecticut (where tuition costs about $9,700).

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"It's not an open door to raise tuition to whatever level they want," Gregoire said.

It didn't seem like many people in the room believed the legislature would actually give the state's universities more freedom to raise tuition rates. Lawmakers have kept a pretty tight leash on public university tuition in the past, and the current economic climate makes it likely they'll continue to do so.

One carrot to get the legislature to act: That $1 billion scholarship fund. There's no money in it yet, said Brad Smith, senior vice president and general counsel for Microsoft, who chaired the governor's higher education funding task force. If the legislature enacts his panel's proposals, then corporations like Microsoft will think about how much money they want to put in to help improve access to education—and their own access to college educated workers—in this state.

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