University of Washington students are watchdogging the university's billion-dollar budget to try to keep tuition costs down.

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In a richly paneled boardroom at the University of Washington’s Gerberding Hall on Friday, the university’s most tenacious financial watchdogs finished a months-long review of the $5.9 billion budget.

The watchdogs in this room, all students, had a final round of questions for the provost, Ana Mari Cauce, about a proposed 16 percent increase in tuition:

How will educational quality improve if there is a 16 percent increase?

Why does this department need more money next year?

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What will you do to keep gateway classes like Chem 101 from having to turn students away?

For the students, the pain of the proposed increase couldn’t be overstated.

Everyone at the table that day knew somebody who’s already scraping by to pay tuition — holding down two jobs while going to school, taking out loans, planning to drop out for a year to work.

And if UW regents approve the increase Thursday, $1,800 will be added to the cost of a year of school for in-state undergraduates. That means a senior at the Seattle campus would pay 60 percent more for a year of tuition and mandatory fees than he or she paid during freshman year.

And many students believe that, even as they are paying more, they’re getting less.

Class size has ballooned. A number of gateway classes — the basic introductory classes a student needs as a prerequisite for more advanced subjects — fill up rapidly, forcing some to stay in school an extra quarter or year. The number of teaching assistants has been cut, meaning less help for students trying to master difficult subjects.

“It makes you wonder where all the money is going,” said Charles Plummer, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate and a Ph.D student in the College of the Environment.

So a committee of 14 students formed last year to learn everything it could about the university’s budget, line by line.

Members of the Provost’s Advisory Committee for Students, which Plummer chaired, raised questions about how money is spent, debated lowering top administrative salaries and wrestled with cuts that could affect the quality of their education.

“They went through the spreadsheets with a fine-tooth comb,” said Cauce, who as provost is second in command of the university and responsible for the budget. “I honestly didn’t expect this group to be as active as they were.”

Students paying bigger share

Among them: Adam Sherman, a second-year law student and former Peace Corps volunteer who has taken out $90,000 in education loans.

He said he believes education access could help solve some of the world’s most pressing issues and that he wants to have a career in public service that would allow him to have influence in education policy.

And Dalia Amin, who will graduate Saturday with a bachelor’s degree in political science and who is deferring her acceptance at New York University’s graduate school for a year to live at home and work to save money.

Although her undergraduate tuition was paid through a Husky Promise scholarship, Amin — who was student advisory board chair of the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity — worked to pay for living and commuting expenses. “The last few years have been really tough on my family,” she said.

The students on the committee have all gone to Olympia to lobby the Legislature against budget cuts. And since the beginning of this year, they’ve pored over budget numbers during committee meetings, on rides to and from Olympia, at the student government offices, at cafes. Or they’ve swapped ideas in the virtual world, through email and Google docs.

They believe UW is in the forefront among national universities for the level of involvement by students in budget planning.

They also expect more colleges and universities will follow suit because, as state support for state schools has eroded, students nationwide are paying a larger part of the bill.

Twenty years ago, the state picked up 70 percent of the cost of a UW education. Today, the state pays 30 percent. Students, or their families, pay 70 percent.

“We’re footing the bill here,” said Evan Smith, the incoming undergraduate student president and member of the committee. “We need to make sure we’re part of policy development.”

The students have asked the administration to boost the number of gateway classes and add more money to student support services, such as mental-health counseling, advising and disability resources. If they weren’t part of the budget process, they say, those student priorities likely would have been left out.

They also persuaded Cauce, the provost, to postpone a new fee for international students. “They made a really strong recommendation that this fee was not ready for prime time — and they were right,” she said. “We haven’t really thought through what we’re going to use it for.”

Cutting the budget turned out to be much harder than the students anticipated.

In the end, they voted in favor of a proposal to increase tuition by 15 percent, not 16 percent — a difference of about $100 a year per in-state undergraduate. Plummer and undergraduate student President Conor McLean will make a presentation to the regents Thursday arguing in favor of the smaller increase.

Plans to look at each college

One of the hot-button issues for students and lawmakers alike has been the size of upper-level administrative salaries. About a dozen UW leaders make more than $300,000 a year.

“It doesn’t look good for top administrators to make hundreds of thousands of dollars,” said Sherman, vice president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate.

But the students came to see that, even if they could persuade the regents to trim top administrative salaries, the amount saved still wouldn’t go far to make up for the $217 million cut the Legislature made in state funds for the 2011-13 biennium.

“I dug a lot into the numbers,” Sherman said. “It didn’t look right, it didn’t smell right. But ultimately, we could do a lot of damage and not a lot of good.”

And the university made cuts during the economic downturn that seemed counterproductive, Sherman said.

For example, about 1,000 positions have been cut in the past four years, mostly in administrative staffing. As a result, professors and researchers spend hours doing paperwork because they have so little administrative support. “This is the opposite of efficiency,” Sherman said.

Smith said students are planning to form councils next year to work with the deans of each of the university’s colleges to give them input on budgetary matters.

Cauce said she’s heard that the student advisory committee has taken some flak from fellow students. “There’s a feeling from their peer group that if they were truly representing students, they would be in the administration’s face in one way or another.”

But both Cauce and students on the committee say they recognize some types of cuts can damage the quality of their education.

“For me, this isn’t simply about cost,” Cauce said. “It’s about value. And value isn’t always the least expensive.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219


On Twitter @katherinelong

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