Why state school tuition continues to soar

Tuition Ignition: A week-long series looking at the soaring cost of college at public and private institutions

Things are bleak for students at the University of Washington, where tuition ratcheted up 16% this year and is poised to go up another 14% in the fall -- raising the price tag by more than a fourth in all.

The university cut 800 jobs last year, and student leaders are bracing for cuts that would halve the university's budget by 2012 compared to 2009. That could mean another 1,500 layoffs, and no one is willing to say what will happen to tuition.

"What's going to happen if we take another 20% cut to our budget, when we've already trimmed out all the fat?" says Jake Faleschini, a UW graduate student and president of the Graduate and Professional Student Senate.

Sound bad? It's hardly unique at the nation's public universities these days.

In-state tuition that once looked affordable, even downright cheap for a bachelor's degree, is now something to balk at for many students. Tack on a sudden $1,000-per-year increase, and it's that much harder to swallow.

The cost of going to public institutions has been climbing steadily for the last 30 years, federal data show. Without counting the most recent hikes, average in-state tuition went up 864% between 1976 and 2008. Adjust for inflation, and tuition bills tripled in that time -- and that doesn't even count housing, meal plans and other expenses.

In many cases, what students pay far surpasses the national average. For example, in-state undergraduate tuition at UW will be $7,700 this year. Add in room, board and other costs, and new undergrads can expect to shell out more than $21,000 for their freshman year.

"In every recession since 1982, you'll see that tuition went up more rapidly than they had previously," says David Longanecker, the president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, a nonpartisan think tank. "The trouble is, when times got good and state appropriations increased, tuition continued to go up."