Senate tuition plan sets worthy goal

Give Senate Republicans a lot of credit: In mapping out a two-year spending plan for Washington state government, they kept college affordability in mind. Their proposal cuts tuition at the two largest universities by 30 percent, in two steps over two years, by 25 percent at regional schools such as The Evergreen State College and by 6 percent at community and technical colleges.

The GOP plan also holds future tuition increases after 2017 to a percentage of the state’s average wage, so college costs don’t grow faster than the ability of middle-income families to pay.

Under Senate Bill 5954, which is sponsored by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the yearly tuition cost would fall to 6 percent of the average state wage for community colleges by 2016-17 – when the average wage is projected to reach $54,004. It would be 10 percent of the average wage at The Evergreen State College and regional colleges, and 14 percent at the University of Washington and Washington State University.

In pocketbook terms, tuition would drop by several thousand dollars at the UW from about $11,695 today to $8,324 in two years. The reduction at Evergreen would be from $7,845 to $6,141 in two years.

To make up for lost tuition dollars at all higher ed institutions, the Senate budget plan pumps in about $221 million over two years from other sources.

We dislike some ways that the Senate pays for this buy-down of college costs. But setting a state goal to reduce a family’s share of college costs is a worthy aim. It is an overdue correction to the tuition policy adopted – by necessity – during the Great Recession budget cutting; tuition was jacked up several times by double digits to cover an ever-larger share of college costs.

Tuition is now 60 percent or more of the cost of educating a student. It strains strapped families and also contributes to rising student debt. We should as a society be finding ways to help more students get college educations and, in turn, raise their lifetime earnings, which can help reduce the income inequality that is tearing at our social fabric.

But there is needs to be a better way to pay for this policy shift. Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, notes that the Senate cuts tens of millions of dollars from the state’s main financial aid program, the State Need Grant. By contrast, House Democrats are proposing to invest another $53.2 million to finance up to 33,000 more State Need Grant slots for lower income students who qualify but have been denied full aid because of inadequate funding.

Braun says that by reducing tuition, the state saves some $75 million in financial aid it otherwise would need to pay. But given the backlog of requests and routine denials of aid, this cut is the wrong way to pay for an improved tuition plan.

Les Purce, president of The Evergreen State College and chairman of the Council of Presidents (representing state colleges), agrees that cutting tuition is a good idea, but only if financial aid funding is retained.

So far, SB 5954 is getting bipartisan support and it sailed through the full Senate last week on a strong 37-to-12 vote with about a dozen Democrats voting in favor and a dozen (including Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County) against.

Reconciling the rival House and Senate approaches to pay for higher education won’t be easy, especially because both chambers’ partisan approaches require new money – either for tuition cuts or financial aid increases. And this comes just when the rival budgets propose to invest at least $1.3 billion in K-12 schools, answering a contempt order from the Supreme Court, and at least $100 million more for early childhood education.

But there is a way for the House and Senate to find middle ground while each holds to its goals of making higher education more accessible. Lawmakers should at a minimum embrace a long-term plan to reduce tuition rates – to the 50 percent of costs target sought by Braun – in order to help middle class families.

At the same time, they should raise revenues for higher education by adopting a capital-gains tax that can help pay for both student financial aid and cover the lost tuition revenue.