Before prices were frozen in the spring, tuition for a year of undergraduate education at the University of Washington had grown at five times the rate of inflation over the last decade — an increase of 150 percent.
That increase is largely due to the state’s sharp budget cutbacks. Washington now funds 31 percent of the cost of a degree; 10 years ago it funded 64 percent.
But two lesser-known factors have also played a role.
• The university’s decision to make the UW free to thousands of low- and middle-income Washington students — about a third of all UW resident undergraduates.
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• Decisions made by students themselves to pay for additional services, programs and amenities — everything from bus passes for all students to rebuilding the Husky Union Building and Hall Health Center.
Among the nation’s public universities, there is huge variation in the amount of tuition money that is set aside for financial aid, and the ways the money is distributed. UW leaders point with pride to the way they spend their money — by helping thousands of Washington
residents attend the state’s flagship university tuition-free.
“It’s always been part of what we do,” said Norm Arkans, associate vice president of media relations and communications. “We direct some of it (tuition) over to financial aid, for students with demonstrated financial need. It’s part of our commitment to make the university accessible to everyone, regardless of circumstances.”
But the money has to come from somewhere.
In-state students who pay the full sticker price are now contributing about $2,150 toward student financial aid. Ten years ago, that figure was about $350.
The UW has remained committed to the program, even as the cost of tuition has skyrocketed. The result has been a kind of a feedback loop; higher tuition meant the university also needed more money to cover the cost of financial aid to students who couldn’t afford to pay.
In a sense, the university’s commitment to helping kids who couldn’t afford tuition exacerbated the effects of state budget cuts on those who could.
The university appears to be bucking a national trend among public universities, many of whom have shifted their aid, giving less, rather than more, to the poorest students.
“The UW is different from the norm amongst flagship universities, in a positive way,” said Tom Mortenson, a national expert on postsecondary education data. “They are bucking the tide … I think it’s fair to say the UW is trying to do the right thing.”
State requires less
Legislators have long required the state’s public colleges and universities to set aside money to help students who can’t afford the sticker price — at least 4 percent of tuition revenues, and as much as 5 percent.
The schools typically go well beyond that.
In 2003, about 8 percent of tuition paid by UW undergraduates was set aside for students who needed financial aid. Today that number is about 19 percent.
Both Washington State University and Western Washington University also set aside significant amounts. WSU, which also pledges to help state residents who can’t afford tuition, sets aside 18 percent. WWU sets aside 15 percent.
At the UW, many of the students who receive assistance are often receiving a combination of need-based aid, because their family income is low, and merit aid because they’re high-achieving students, said financial-aid officer Kay Lewis.
Trends and comparisons are hard to come by. But an analysis by the nonprofit investigative-reporting site ProPublica, using data from the U.S. Department of Education, shows that most public colleges and universities are cutting back, not increasing, money to low-income students.
According to ProPublica, “from 1996 through 2012, public colleges and universities gave a declining portion of grants — as measured by both the number of grants and the dollar amounts — to students in the lowest quartile of family income.”
Mortenson, the national data expert, has been documenting that trend for years now through his newsletter, Postsecondary Education Opportunity.
As states have cut support for higher education, the institutions have become more dependent on tuition. In turn, colleges have prioritized letting in nonresidents and full-paying in-state students, Mortenson said.
“You see, broadly, the pattern of the poor getting squeezed out of four-year schools,” Mortenson said.
That makes the UW an outlier.
Lewis, the financial-aid officer, said that for more than 10 years the UW has targeted the lowest-income resident students first — contrary to national trends. If more money is available, it’s stretched to the middle-income group.
“Although we have more low-income students than 10 years ago — our philosophy hasn’t changed in trying to keep the UW accessible to students at all income levels,” Lewis said.
The Husky Promise
The decision to help more low-income students goes back seven years, when then-UW President Mark Emmert started the Husky Promise program for students who qualified for federal Pell Grants and the state’s own State Need Grant.
Together those grant programs paid the lion’s share of tuition and fees, and the UW picked up the remainder with money of its own from tuition revenue and endowment funds.
The Husky Promise essentially made that practice official.
When it started in 2006, the program covered 5,000 Washington students, or about one-fifth of all resident undergraduates. At the time, in-state tuition and fees were just under $6,000.
The program now pays for about a third of all in-state undergraduates, or 9,200 students. Tuition and fees for the upcoming academic year are about $12,400. With books and on-campus living expenses factored in — which are not included in Husky Promise funds — the price is about $27,000.
WSU has its own version of the program, Cougar Commitment, that helps pay tuition and fees for students who are also getting Pell and state grants.
Administrators like to point out that the UW has more low-income students than many of the richest schools in the nation — institutions that are well-equipped to pay generous financial aid.
Provost Ana Mari Cauce has often noted that the UW has more Pell Grant recipients than all the Ivy League colleges combined.
Sandy Baum, an independent higher-education policy analyst and national expert on college pricing and financial aid, said it’s important to also consider the amount of money the state is already spending to support the universities.
“The framing is really political,”she said. “The state could give more money in state grant aid and less funding directly to institutions, and no one would think the aid dollars were coming from tuition. But the outcome would be exactly the same.”
Although Washington’s institutions are generous, they pale in comparison to the University of California system, which has long been a standout for its commitment to helping poor kids go to college, Mortenson said.
The UC system sets aside 28 percent of tuition revenue for financial aid, up from about 16 to 20 percent a decade ago, said David Alcocer, interim director of student financial support for the UC system.
The aid program means the universities charge a higher sticker price, Alcocer said, “but it does result in greater access, across the board.” About two-thirds of UC students receive some kind of financial aid, he said; at the UW, the number of in-state students receiving some form of aid is about 50 percent.
Alcocer said California system administrators spend a lot of time every year making sure the higher sticker price is not pricing low- to middle-income families out of the system.
Lewis said the UW examines similar data, although she said she did not believe the UW’s review is as detailed as that of California’s.
But UW student leaders have often said they believe the middle class is being priced out of the university. They frequently make the case that low tuition is the best form of financial aid.
Fees that students impose on themselves are another driver of higher tuition — although their impact isn’t nearly as significant.
Ten years ago, students paid $400 a year in student-approved fees, including money for student programs and a bond fee to pay for the Intramural Activities (IMA) building. This fall, they’ll pay more than twice that — $873 a year, or about 8 percent of the cost of attending the UW.
“It’s an example of an important tenet of student governance: If students can raise fees to fund more student programming, they will,” wrote Bill Dow, an opinion writer for the UW Daily, in 2012.
Students today pay two relatively new fees that weren’t around in 2003: a $267 fee to finance the remodel of the Husky Union Building, open a new Ethnic Cultural Center and rebuild Hall Health Center; and a $228 fee that buys all students a U-Pass, providing free rides on Metro, Community Transit and several other bus and rail services.
Students who helped make those decisions, and have since graduated, said the U-Pass decision was an easy one. The U-Pass program originally was optional, but costs began increasing rapidly in the late 2000s, and the pass program “would have been sent into a death spiral of rising costs and falling participation rates” if students didn’t change the program, said former student President Madeleine McKenna.
She said 79 percent of students surveyed approved of the measure to charge all students the U-Pass fee, spreading the costs across the student body.
The student-union renovation was necessary because the old building had infrastructure problems and didn’t flow well, limiting its suitability for activities such as concerts and student conferences, said Sam Al-Khoury, a student vice-president at the time of the renovation decision.
The new building remedies that with such design innovations as open floors above and below, “so there’s a great sense of what is going on around the building and greater opportunity for students to find the experience they’re looking for in college,” Al-Khouri said.
Biggest hit from state
All of these numbers are dwarfed by the effect of state budget cuts on higher education.
State funding per student declined by about 35 percent in Washington between 2007 and 2012, according to a report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers. Only five other states cut higher-education funding by a higher percentage than Washington during the recession years.
Earlier this year, after four years of cutbacks, the Legislature put more money into higher education and put the brakes on tuition increases, freezing tuition for the coming academic year at 2012 prices.
The UW has said it will keep tuition frozen for 2014-15 as well.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.