Washington lawmakers did something our Legislature has never done, and no other state is doing this year. It cut tuition for college students. This is mostly a good thing, although we’d have liked to see State Need Grants also expanded to improve college access for lower income students.
But the tuition cut represents a major change in state budgeting. It reverses a years-long trend, especially during the Great Recession years, of reducing taxpayer funding for colleges but requiring universities and colleges to jack up tuition to make up the difference – all because lawmakers didn’t want to raise taxes.
The unhappy result: Tuition and fees at the state’s flagship public universities shot up by roughly 70 percent during the 2008-2012 period – going from $6,290 to 11,782 (the current rate including state-mandated fees), according to a report by the state Guaranteed Education Tuition program. It rose by smaller amounts for other institutions, but average tuition at Washington’s four-year universities is now about 12th highest in the country and a third higher than before the recession. One national expert says our state’s average tuition rates are 16 percent above the national average.
High tuition is a factor in college loan debt, which is growing national problem for graduates.
Under Senate Bill 5954, tuition rates are cut by 5 percent this year at most schools – and another 10 percent in 2016-17 for the two major schools, the University of Washington and Washington State University. That means costs for tuition-only at UW, currently the highest at $10,740, would drop by $537 this fall and by $1,611 from current levels during the 2016-17 school year, according to the Senate.
Rates at the regional universities and The Evergreen State College (now $6,968 for tuition only at Evergreen) would fall by 5 percent this fall and another 15 percent the following year. The cut is just 5 percent at community colleges.
The proposal was championed by Senate Republicans, led by Sen. John Braun of Centralia. It passed unanimously as part of the final budget deal at the state Capitol, and it appears much of the lost revenue for colleges is back-filled by increased state funding.
House Democrats had qualms about how the tuition changes harm the state’s GET program, which lets parents buy tuition credits and lock in lower costs years in advance. But they went along with the bill in the end. They wisely insisted that the financing of it didn’t rob from other important programs, particularly the State Need Grant, which Braun’s early proposal would have done.
Although the budget reduces the amount of aid given in a Need Grant, it retains the number of funding slots, according to House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington. We had hoped lawmakers would go further and expand the need grant program, which has some 30,000 more eligible students than the state can assist.
It’s not just the middle class that needs help with college affordability.
A better scenario would have been if lawmakers had passed a capital gains tax to pay for both the tuition cuts and need grants. Such a move would have been fair – requiring high earners to contribute aid to the kind of college education that has let many of them enjoy the greater fruits of our economy.
In the end that didn’t happen, and lawmakers should keep it in mind looking ahead.
Even so, Republicans deserve credit for seeking a freeze on tuition rates two years ago and now for finding a way to begin reducing it. Under Braun’s plan future increases in tuition will be indexed to the state’s average wage, currently $52,635. At Evergreen, tuition would be capped at 10 percent of the wage; at UW, at 14 percent.
Time will tell whether the lower rates bring havoc to the state Guaranteed Education Tuition program. Under the bill, owners of credits are to be held harmless at least for the next two years. After that, the GET committee is supposed to have established a way forward that also protects their investments.
The GET committee meets next Monday to take its first look at the new law, and its options.
This is an experiment that deserves close watching.