I left Pullman in the spring of 1982 with bachelor’s degrees in English, economics and political science with the goal of never looking back.

But, similar to many students who have made that vow, I did come back – more often than ever since 1997 when Gov. Gary Locke appointed me to the WSU Board of Regents.
 I have found that while the academic reputation of my alma mater continues to improve, some trends have not been for the better.

When I graduated in 1982, tuition was $1,060 ($1,918 in today’s dollars). My debt leaving WSU was less than $500. Today tuition is $4,836 and the average debt of a graduate is $19,700.

In 1982 faculty salaries at WSU ranked somewhat below the middle in relation to comparable universities. Today we are near the bottom. The gap between WSU faculty salaries and the top 25th percentile has grown from $3,000 to $14,000 per year and the gap with the average has grown from $2,000 to $11,000.

Per student appropriations have fallen 25 percent since 1991. State appropriations now are only 29 percent of the WSU budget, tuition amounts to 14 percent and the remaining 57 percent comes from grants and other sources. We are quickly becoming a private institution by default and neglect.

Since 1997, I have voted to raise tuition six times – an increase of 40%. Raise tuition on the backs of the students and parents, or cut services, salaries, staff and quality. This is not what I signed up for.

Higher education’s response to decreasing support and increased demand has been the slamming doors of higher tuition and of required higher GPA’s and SAT’s.

WSU is proud that its 2003 entering freshman class had an average GPA of nearly 3.6. If this had been the standard when I arrived in 1977, I would not have been admitted. My life-changing experience of attending WSU would, quite simply, not have happened.

So, where are we headed?

In 1997, Gov. Locke appointed many outstanding state leaders to the 2020 Commission, which looked at what our higher education system needed in the coming decades.

According to the commission’s report, we will need places for 100,000 more college and university students in 2020 than we needed in 1998. That is more than two new WSUs and one new UW combined.

The 2020 commission report stated: “The higher education system benefits the public as a whole by stimulating economic growth and innovation, by nurturing our artistic and cultural life, and by preparing successive generations of our leaders.”

So, what did the commission say was necessary to fulfill these goals? Increase the capacity of the higher education system so that all Washington residents who want to learn will have access to education. And maintain funding at or above the average of per-student funding of similar institutions in other states.

Commissioners stated in 1998: “The need to expand capacity is immediate. The demographic bulge is beginning to graduate from high school NOW. The economy is demanding more highly skilled workers NOW. Employers have high-skilled jobs unfilled NOW. These statistics were supported by the Higher Education Coordinating Board’s 2004 report which shows a need for places for an additional 30,000 by 2010.

The report continued: “Failing to address this shortfall would deny opportunity to Washington residents, starve our industries of qualified employees, and lead to the deterioration of public institutions. The stakes are enormous. If we try to ‘just get by’ we will consign our state and its people to economic decline and social division.”

These are strong words from a report that has gathered dust in Olympia for the last five years.

Ultimately this is all about money and our collective will to look to the future.

So, is there hope? I believe that the answer is yes. However, we need to look to ourselves for leadership.

Recently, the UW and WSU Boards of Regents approved a resolution to cap freshman and transfer enrollments, until there is a substantial move to fund higher education at a level that puts quality and access first.

Meanwhile, a group of individuals (including myself) from K-12, community colleges, the regional colleges and the research institutions has been working to put an educational initiative on the ballot in 2004. The initiative would raise sales taxes 1 cent and raise over $1 billion a year to invest in K-12 and higher education.

For higher education alone it would raise $100 million a year to invest in research to save lives and spur economic growth, $175 million a year to allow more high school graduates to attend community college and four-year institutions, $75 million a year to train workers in new technologies and $50 million a year for scholarships.

Some politicians feel that the public will not support a tax increase. But when 100,000 otherwise qualified kids cannot get the education they deserve in the coming decades, we will look back and wish we had shown courage and leadership.

No one likes to pay taxes. However, it is time for us all to step up and do what is right for out kids’ futures. If it is not us, then who? If not now, then when? Leadership is in our hands. It is up to us to decide what to do with it.

William Marler is a Seattle attorney, president of the WSU Board of Regents and father of three. This article was adapted from his speech to December commencement at WSU Pullman.