Lawmakers Debate Higher Ed Enrollments, Performance Contracts

To the surprise of many longtime Olympia observers, higher education has been a hot topic during the 2004 legislative session. As lawmakers work toward a March 11 adjournment, they are debating bills on new enrollments, performance contracts and other issues.

Newly appointed UW State Relations Director Randy Hodgins, '79, '83, says the focus started with Gov. Gary Locke's $193 million supplemental budget in December. "There was an extraordinary emphasis on higher education in a tight fiscal time," he says.

The governor proposed a $30 million plan that would create space for up to 5,200 more college students, a majority in high-demand fields such as nursing, computer science and math. Locke also proposed a $93 million capital construction budget to build or renovate higher education facilities. Locke also wanted to double grant award levels for Promise Scholarships given to high-performing high school students from low- and middle-income families.

There was an extraordinary emphasis on higher education in a tight fiscal time

State schools will graduate the largest class of high school seniors in 2008 and lawmakers are scrambling to meet the demand for higher education. Fortunately, says Hodgins, for the first time in four years, legislators have a modest budget surplus rather than a looming deficit.

Hodgins says the Legislature seems to be equally interested in putting a top priority on higher education. He expects some enrollment growth for state colleges and universities, including the University of Washington.

In his view, the most intriguing proposal for higher education is a test of performance contracts between selected state universities and the state government. "We would negotiate a contract with certain specific outcomes and then the state would match it with resources necessary to make that happen," Hodgins says.

While several plans are wending their way through the Legislature, most call for a six-year plan that would set goals for graduation rates, quality of education, financial aid packages, economic development efforts and similar measures. The state would provide funds to meet these goals through more general fund revenue and/or higher tuition.

Too often decisions on enrollments and tuition are made at the last minute as lawmakers and staff put the finishing touches on a budget, Hodgins says. A performance contract would make the link stronger between the state's educational policy goals and its budgets.

We have to get real smart about how we teach"We may have continuing erosion of state support. We have to get real smart about how we teach," Thorud says.

Some student groups have complained that a performance contract would give regents and trustees unlimited power to raise tuition. Hodgins disagrees. "Unlimited tuition-setting authority is not what the University is looking for," he says. If a performance contract plan is passed in this session, state colleges and universities would negotiate a contract that would have to be approved in the 2005 session.

For more information about legislative proposals affecting the UW, contact the Office of Government Relations at (206) 543-7604, e-mail To contact lawmakers in Olympia, call 1-800-562-6000.

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