State lawmakers have proposed to lower or freeze tuition at state schools, but finding funding to cover the costs is doubtful.
PARENTS of kindergartners might already be panicking when they consider how much sending that child to college will cost, with good reason: Tuition at Washington’s four-year state schools shot up 37 percent in the last five years, from an average of $6,400 in 2010-11 to $8,778 in the current year.
Freezing college tuition — or even lowering it — is a worthy goal for state lawmakers. The higher tuition goes, the less affordable college is for students and families, and creates larger student debt.
Freezing or cutting tuition only works, however, if the state makes up the lost revenue. Otherwise, the effect is just a budget cut for schools. Many proposals on the table this legislative session don’t properly address funding.
A bill moving through the Legislature, ESSB 5954, proposes to lower tuition by tying it to a percentage of the average wage in the state. The percentage ranges from 6 percent for community and technical colleges, 14 percent for state universities and 10 percent for regional universities and The Evergreen State College.
The bill, which passed the state Senate, would go into effect next school year and cost an estimated $300 million per year, but doesn’t name a funding source. The bill also stirred concerns that tuition would fluctuate with the economy creating a “roller coaster” effect. On top of that, the bill is unclear how it would affect the state’s Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program, which allows parents to prepay for college credits.
The Senate Republicans’ budget, released Tuesday, includes lowering tuition based on ESSB 5954 and backfilling the cost with $146 million in new revenue. That plan reduces student-aid funding by $75 million, but maintains the same number of students who receive grants, which was 70,109 in the 2013-14 school year. This would still leave 30,000 eligible students without funding.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget, released in December, included a tuition freeze but not a mechanism to pay for it.
The state House Democrats’ proposed budget released Friday also wants to freeze tuition, but would cover the $106.5 million cost through a new capital-gains tax, which still needs lawmaker approval. The House’s and Senate’s proposed budgets allocate a total of $3.5 billion each for higher education — a 12 percent bump compared with the current biennium.
State Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, sponsored SHB 1238, which would task the Washington Student Achievement Council, the state agency that oversees higher education, with analyzing how to lower tuition, how decreases could be phased in and how to backfill funding. That bill passed the House and has moved on to the Senate.
Pollet supports pegging tuition at 10 percent of the average family income because the benchmark is easy to understand.
Making higher education affordable is imperative for improving the state’s citizens, workforce and economy. The larger goal should be to invest more overall funds into higher education in a way that benefits both students and institutions.