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Higher education in this state does not get the respect it deserves for the role colleges and universities play in powering Washington’s economy.

Lawmakers meeting in special session to sort out a state budget need to remember the payoff that comes, literally, from investments in higher education.

For too long the Legislature has been pinching pennies on funding for higher-ed institutions, and students have paid the price in higher tuition.

Give it a rest. Invest a scant amount of money and freeze tuition for two years, at least.

Some embarrassing options get tossed around. Hitting foreign students with a 20-percent surcharge, or imposing differential rates of tuition. The latter would raise tuition for fields of study with higher postgraduate earning potential. Relax.

Lecture halls full of political-science and art-history majors have subsidized engineering classes for generations. The arithmetic works out fine. Quit dreaming up schemes to mug students.

I never supported the idea of giving institutions tuition-setting authority. I thought it was particularly insulting to jack up tuition and then offer the rationalization that financial aid would be increased. It was always about raising the base.

But I digress. Lawmakers need to acknowledge the economic engines these schools represent. An independent study of the University of Washington, released in 2010, put UW’s annual economic impact at $9.1 billion a year.

What were described as conservative estimates found $4 billion in direct economic activity from the university, employees, students and visitors. Businesses took that money and turned it into another $5.1 billion of indirect expenditures.

The study found that every $1 of state money put into UW generated $1.48 in state revenue.

UW is one of the top employers in the state, and its nearly 29,000 full-time employees at all of its campuses and medical facilities stir the economy, creating another 70,000 jobs. That is a lot of sales and property taxes flowing into government coffers.

Washington State University employs more than 5,000 faculty and staff at its locations, with the same multiplier effect in local economies.

For all of us huddled on the west side of the Cascades, WSU might only come to mind during football season. Right, and that is another way of saying I am woefully unaware of the school’s presence in the state economy.

WSU helped nurture the state’s $8.6 billion-a-year premium-wine-grape industry. WSU research is behind a $6 billion tree-fruit industry. How do you like those apples, and pears and cherries?

The economic impact includes innovations in wood-plastic composites, biofuels, small-business consulting and the prodigious work of the WSU College of Nursing. A humbling array of faculty talent and student capacities.

The University of Washington attracts scads of federal dollars for advanced research of all sorts. That translates into more than 22,000 jobs and $3 billion in economic impact, according to the 2010 study.

A creative faculty has ideas that demand exploration, attract big dollars, and translate into new approaches and smarter ways to do lots of things.

All manner of innovation via higher education fuels the economy with changes in information technology, material science and evolutions in manufacturing that show up in the workplace.

Another byproduct is a trained, skilled and inspired outflow of entrepreneurial risk takers.

Let’s get really crass for a moment. A college degree also empowers educated, capable consumers who propel the economy over time.

Higher education delivers results for the state: ideas, graduates and tax revenues. Yes, these are rich dividends for relatively modest state investments.

Respect the results and efforts. Knock off the tuition gimmicks and provide the cash to give students and parents an overdue break.

When lawmakers are thinking about UW, WSU, WWU and others, don’t forget ROI. Return on investment is part of every expenditure for higher ed.

Lance Dickie’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is