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Coffee with UW President Emmert

I had coffee recently with Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington.

One of the nation's largest universities (with 47,000 students), UW is also a first-tier research school and one of the top-ranked public universities.

Emmert told me the school has received 23,000 applications for 5,000 spaces in the fall freshman class. For the first time, more than half of the applications came from outside the state.

Emmert has publicly supported raising the share of nonresident students on campus as a way to raise revenue, a prospect I explored in depth in a November article.

Public universities facing steep state budget cuts typically must turn to tuition revenue. There are two ways to increase it: raise tuition, or accept more nonresidents, who pay a higher rate.

"The former model of subsidizing education is broken," Emmert said. At UW, state funding has declined steadily for 20 years. The school gets 8 percent of its funding from the state.

"This year, for the first time, we have more revenue from tuition than from state funds," Emmert said. "I call it crossing the Rubicon, because we'll never go back."

UW charges $7,000 to residents and $24,500 to nonresidents, "because we can," Emmert said. The university is nationally ranked, and many international students consider it a bargain, even when they are paying full freight.

The student mix at UW is 82 percent resident, 18 percent nonresident at present. Last fall's freshman class was 75-25, reflecting the beginning of a shift. This fall's class will be 73-27.
That means the school is processing 11,000 local applications for roughly 4,000 slots. Only about one-third will get in -- although the admit rate is much better for residents than for nonresidents. Such is also the case at the top Virginia public universities, and yet there is perennial outcry there over seats at U-Va. going to out-of-state students.

At UW, the average admitted resident student will have a 3.8 grade-point average and an SAT composite score near 1250 out of 1600 possible points in verbal and math. The process will end "with many, many unhappy residents whose parents went there and who long thought their destiny was to go to UW," Emmert said.

"It's not an overtly political issue," he said. At least, not yet.

In the top reaches of public higher education, "everybody talks about the Michigan model," Emmert said. The University of Michigan has about 35 percent nonresidents and charges them about $35,000 apiece, at the high end of college tuition anywhere.

Will other public flagships jack up nonresident tuition as a way to make ends meet amid declining state revenues?

"Unless the dynamic changes dramatically, yes, I think that's where everybody's going to go," he said.

UW has cut 850 jobs over the past six months because of declining state funds, with 550 layoffs and 300 vacancies eliminated, Emmert said. State funding declined 26 percent in fiscal 2009 and another 6 percent in fiscal 2010.

As a defense against further cuts, Emmert points to the university's role as an economic engine. The school receives $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion in external research funding annually, a sum that leverages many of the 42,000 positions at the university.

"We have now become the third-largest employer in the state, behind Microsoft and Boeing," he said. "And all that, for a $300 million state investment."

President Obama has pointed to the nation's community colleges as key to rebuilding the economy. Emmert contends research universities play their own vital role.

"We actually produce jobs," he said. "When we get a $100 million research grant, 10 jobs get created. . . Those are businesses. And they're great jobs. A community college, for all its virtues, can't do that. You don't have people moving from Northern Virginia to Seattle to be closer to a community college. But you do have people moving to Seattle to be near us."

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By Daniel de Vise  |  March 21, 2010; 3:36 PM ET
Categories:  Administration , Admissions , Finance , Public policy , Publics  | Tags: University of Washington, college administration, college admissions, higher education finance  
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