New Proposal Would Limit Washington Tuition Rates

‘College Affordability Program’ Clears Senate Higher Education Committee

By Issac Scott

College students in Washington may soon get a break. A new bill in the state senate would limit how much public colleges could charge for resident tuition, and make the state pay colleges the difference.

Evergreen students could see savings of around $1,700 a year starting next year. The proposal, Senate Bill 5954, would cap resident tuition rates to a percentage of Washington’s average income. Evergreen could charge no more than 10 percent of the state’s $54,635 average annual wage, lowering tuition to $5,245. Currently, the college’s $6,968 tuition is roughly 13 percent of the state’s average wage.

Tuition at Evergreen has doubled since 2005, with the largest increase coming in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. In the past six years, state support to the college has been cut in half, so now students pay for more of the college’s budget than does the state.

Students at Washington’s research universities would see an even bigger break. University of Washington’s $10,740 resident tuition would come down to $7,369 next year.

However, out-of-state tuition at public colleges would not be affected by the bill.

Republican state senators Barbara Bailey (R-Oak Harbor) and John Braun (R-Centralia) put the bill forward on Feb. 12, calling it a “sensible approach for making college affordable.”

“Without affordable college options we are seeing increased student debt that will have ripple effects throughout the economy,” Braun said in a statement. “Students are delaying major life events like starting a family or buying a home. This bill makes sense for all students and invests in higher education after years of neglect.”

“We think the bill has lots of merits,” said Julie Garver, director of government relations at Evergreen. “It makes an attempt to right the ship and equalize the cost sharing between students and families and the state.”

However, she also said “This bill addresses one part of the problem. We want to keep it in the context that it doesn’t fix everything.”

There is concern over how the state will be able to pay the price tag, which would be between $225 million and $250 million over the next two years, according to the Ways and Means Committee. The bill makes no recommendation as to where the funding will come from. In the state’s current fiscal crisis, there is concern that money will come out of needed resources to other programs.

The three Democratic senators on the Higher Education Committee put forward an amendment to the bill that would have closed various tax loopholes to fund the measure, but it was rejected by the committee’s Republican majority. The Democrats proposed raising $177 million by ending tax exemptions for oil refineries, out-of-state shoppers, and bottled water and putting the money into a special account to pay for reduced tuition rates.

“It’s not enough to just say the legislature should reduce tuition—we should actually have to show how we’re going to pay for it,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-Seattle), the ranking Democratic member on the Higher Education Committee.

At the public hearing for the bill on Feb. 17, Sen. Braun indicated his opposition to raising taxes, in favor of pulling from the state’s existing pool of money. “I would make the argument that within current revenue sources we can afford to do this,” he said.

Garver pointed out that other state higher education programs will still be underfunded if this bill passes, such as the state need grant, which is the largest source of financial aid in the state. There are currently 33,000 students in the state of Washington who are eligible for need grants and who have not received one because of lack of funding, Garver said. Evergreen has the highest proportion of financial aid-eligible students among the six public baccalaureate colleges in the state.

“It’s time we prioritize our state’s investment in education,” Braun said. “We face challenges in this budget cycle, but in the context of a $37 billion budget this investment is doable and will have benefits to our state’s economy.”