SEATTLE -- The presidents of Washington's three largest universities said Friday that President Barack Obama should be talking to state governments about college tuition, not complaining to them.
University of Washington President Mike Young said he's annoyed with Obama, who said Friday in Ann Arbor, Mich., that if universities don't give students a break, the federal government is going to start taking money away.
Young called that "nonsense on stilts."
Obama showed that he doesn't understand how the budgets of public universities work, Young said.
He and his colleagues at Western Washington and Washington State say the actual total cost of educating college students -- paid by tuition plus state support -- has gone down in this state because of efficiency on campus.
But as Olympia has cut the dollars it sends to colleges and universities, lawmakers have authorized them to raise tuition to make up for the loss.
A decade ago, the state was paying 80 percent of the cost to educate a student at Washington's flagship university; students paid 20 percent. Now, students pay 70 percent; UW students are paying $10,346 in in-state tuition this year.
"They really should know better. This really is political theater of the worst sort," Young said.
He hadn't heard enough details of the proposal to understand where the federal government would take dollars away from universities that don't become more efficient, but he worries it will hurt students and hobble scientific research.
Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard accused Obama of blaming the victim.
Universities aren't gouging students; state government is taking care of that on its own, he said.
"The fact is the taxpayers have pulled their money back," Shepard said.
Thanks to university efficiency, the full cost to educate students at Western has gone down since 2003 -- from $9,818 to $9,630. But the share of that cost covered by tuition has risen from $4,000 in 2003 to $6,468 this year.
He said part of the disconnect may be an East Coast-West Coast difference. East Coast universities -- both public and private -- have had higher tuition and lower state support for years. Until recent years, West Coast universities have kept their student costs down.
"The state really does have to step up to address the problems of higher education," Shepard said, adding that some states like Idaho are already moving in the right direction.
WSU President Elson Floyd had something positive to say about Obama's state of the union speech, where he foreshadowed Friday's announcement in Michigan.
"It's very helpful to have the president of the United States focus on higher education," Floyd said.
Like his colleagues in Seattle and Bellingham, Floyd added, however, that the president is missing a third part of the tuition equation: state government.
If the state could promise a minimum level of support, universities could come to some agreement on tuition as well, but talking about tuition without involving the states doesn't make sense, he said.
All three agreed with Obama on one thing: The nation should be having a conversation about the cost of higher education.
"There is no way that parents and students can continue to pay these escalating tuition costs," Floyd said.