Lower tuition is a boon for working families and students.

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WE allowed it to creep up on us, paying virtually no attention at all, until tuition at a public college in this state equaled the cost of a luxury automobile. It’s a little shocking when you think of it that way.

Over the course of four years, a student at the University of Washington will pay roughly $50,000 in just tuition and fees, and will probably finance at least $20,000 of it with student loans. That same student 35 years ago would have paid $667 annually, and likely would have graduated debt-free.

Tuition has reached the point where many of us in the Legislature are worried about what these high costs are doing to our students, parents and society as a whole. In the state Senate this year, we are proposing a permanent fix.

State Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, is co-sponsor of the tuition-reduction plan, the College Affordability Program.
State Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, is co-sponsor of the tuition-reduction plan, the College Affordability Program.

We are proposing a tuition rollback of 25 percent, on average. At the same time, we are proposing a permanent policy regarding future tuition increases: Tuition could grow no faster than the state’s average annual wage, about 3 to 4 percent a year.

Essentially we want to undo the damage done during the Great Recession. We slashed spending on higher education by half and allowed our schools to make up the difference by raising tuition. At the UW, undergrad tuition and fees increased from $6,793 in 2008 to $12,155 in 2012, the second-biggest increase in the country.

It took an extreme case for us to recognize that something had gone haywire, but this really was the culmination of three decades of legislative disinterest in affordable college education. This state and many others once saw low tuition and a heavily subsidized college education as the best way up for youths. But starting in the early 1980s, we withdrew support for colleges and universities every time the economy hit a rocky patch. We tacitly adopted a high-tuition, high-financial-aid model, yet there was never enough money to serve everyone who qualified. What we really saw was a de facto tax increase on the middle class, financed by parental savings and student loans.

The Senate took the first step toward fixing the problem two years ago: We insisted on a tuition freeze. Some, I think, have been caught off guard by our new call for a rollback and a long-term fix. Amid the superheated rhetoric of the Legislature, our loyal opposition has claimed our tuition plan favors “millionaires over the middle class.” That is absurd, of course. It is the middle class that has been hit the hardest.

Lower tuition is a boon not only for working families and students. The College Affordability Program, as it is called, also offers significant benefits to families who are invested in the state’s Guaranteed Education Tuition program (GET). Our proposal is clear: Current GET holders would be held harmless. To maintain the dollar value of GET accounts, a one-time adjustment would be made, similar to a stock split, to account for the new lower tuition prices.

According to the nonpartisan Office of the State Actuary, the Senate’s tuition-reduction proposal would increase the GET-funded status to 133 percent — a positive change for current GET holders.

My colleagues and I believe this tuition rollback is one the most important things we can do this year. For less than half of 1 percent of the state budget, we can make college more affordable. As our budget picture brightens, it is clear we have enough money to do this and to beef up spending on basic K-12 education, without increasing taxes. It is a matter of priorities — making college affordable again ought to be at the top of the priority list.