Washington lawmakers are talking of freezing college tuition for two more years as no one seems willing to touch the third rail of higher education politics in the state.

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Washington lawmakers are talking about freezing college tuition for two more years. And one bill would even roll back tuition for in-state undergraduates by thousands of dollars.

One thing is clear: A tuition increase “is the third rail of higher education politics in this state — no one dares touch that one right now,” said Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard during a meeting this month with The Seattle Times editorial board.

During the recession, tuition rates skyrocketed at public colleges and universities in Washington and around the country as state lawmakers slashed funding and college administrators turned to students to make up the difference. Voters were not happy with the increases.

In 2013 and again in 2014, Washington lawmakers froze tuition at the state’s two- and four-year public colleges, a move that proved so popular that it’s back again during this budget-setting session. If a freeze goes into effect, as expected, tuition will remain unchanged through spring 2017.

Indeed, the presidents of the six four-year schools aren’t even requesting a tuition increase for the biennium.

However, they are warning that the budget proposed by Gov. Jay Inslee — which freezes tuition — amounts to a budget cut, one that will cause some schools to trim class offerings, institute hiring freezes or lay off some staffers.

So the five universities and The Evergreen State College are asking for an additional $198 million in state funding, which would allow them to expand some classes and boost dollars for programs that help students who are struggling.

But Inslee’s budget amounts to a $60 million to $80 million cut when pre-approved pay raises are factored in, the presidents say.

For example, such a cut would cause WWU to institute a hiring freeze and eliminate some class offerings, Shepard said. Central Washington University would extend its existing hiring freeze and perhaps also do some layoffs, while also eliminating some classes, said President Jim Gaudino. And Les Purce, president of The Evergreen State college, said the Evergreen administration would go over its budget carefully before deciding where cuts would be made.