With a 5 to 20 percent rollback in tuition prices, Washington has become the only state in the country to cut tuition for its colleges and universities this year.
For years, Washington college students have been arguing that the best form of financial aid is low tuition. This year, Washington legislators agreed with them.
In its 2015-17 budget, the Legislature cut four-year college tuition costs by 15 to 20 percent by 2016 — making Washington the only state in the country to lower tuition for public universities and colleges next year. Community-college tuition will drop by 5 percent.
The rollback will save University of Washington junior Austin Wright-Pettibone $1,611 in 2016, when the biggest cut takes place. That’s the equivalent of one-quarter’s worth of a maximum-sized subsidized federal loan, said Wright-Pettibone, who has been lobbying the Legislature all session for the change as the government-relations director for UW student government.
“It’s absolutely historic,” he said. “I hope it will spark other conversations in state legislatures about the importance of higher education.”
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State Sen. John Braun,one of the original sponsors of the bill, called it a “meaningful reset” for tuition in a state that, during the recession, raised the price of going to college more than almost any other state.
“It’s a great deal for students and middle-class families that put up with 34 percent tuition growth,” said the Centralia Republican. Tuition at four-year universities went up 34 percent in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past five years — much higher than the national average increase of 17 percent.
House Democrats originally opposed a tuition cut, proposing instead to keep tuition frozen for another two years and spend more money on financial aid.
In the end, lawmakers forged a compromise when Republicans agreed to close tax loopholes to pay for the tuition cut, said state Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge.
“We’re thrilled,” said Chris Mulick, Washington State University’s director of state relations. “At some point, with the dramatic rise (in tuition) that we saw during the Great Recession, it has to be a plausible policy choice to reverse that trend.”
Dan Bernardo, the acting president of WSU, said former President Elson Floyd — who died June 20 — would have been pleased with the tuition cut.
“Affordable access to a higher education changed his life in North Carolina, and he wanted that for students in Washington, too,” Bernardo said in a statement.
And Interim UW President Ana Mari Cauce praised the Legislature for reversing “the long-term trend of shifting the burden of paying for college from the state to students and their families.”
Washington’s move isn’t well-known elsewhere in the country, but some say it could spur other states to think about cuts.
“I don’t know how widely known this proposal was,” said Dustin Weeden, a policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“If Washington gets lots of headlines, I really think a lot of people are going to be asking: ‘What’s going on in Washington? Why are they doing that?’ ”
The only two states that come close to what Washington has done this year: Minnesota, which is cutting community-college tuition by 1 percent; and Ohio, where a budget plan would require colleges to propose ways to reduce student costs by 5 percent.
Nationally, the issue of skyrocketing student debt has started to resonate with lawmakers.
“There’s a whole new generation of people with student debt right now, and state lawmakers are starting to recognize that,” said Thomas Harnisch, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “There is a push to make college more affordable.”
Still, most states are choosing to freeze tuition or increase it slightly this year, Harnisch said — not cut it.
Both the UW and WSU said the budget backfilled the loss in tuition revenue that will result from the cuts. They were also pleased that a number of their top priorities were funded — including money to begin the accreditation process for a new medical school at WSU’s Spokane campus, money to keep UW’s medical-education program running in Spokane, and money for computer-science education at the UW.
As part of the bill that cut tuition, lawmakers also froze the payout value of Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) units to $117 for the next two years.
That’s unlikely to sit well with parents who paid $172 per unit this year, expecting tuition to go up, not down. The Legislature has charged the GET Committee with studying what to do with GET in the future, and to make recommendations to ensure that unit values are not decreased or diluted as a result of lower tuition. That report is due in December 2016.
Some of those solutions may include “a cash refund, additional units, a minimum payout value, or another solution that is deemed appropriate,” GET spokesman Ryan Betz said in an email.
The tuition bill also ties tuition, beginning in 2017, with the state’s median family wage, which was $41,101 in 2013 and on average goes up by about 2.1 percent a year.
Braun said that’s an effort to try to get lawmakers to hold tuition costs down in the future.
“This is really about giving higher ed a better seat at the table when it comes to building the budget,” he said.