Republicans have proposed lowering tuition at the state’s colleges and universities by about 25 percent.
With Republicans in the state Senate proposing to cut tuition by about 25 percent at state universities and permanently tie tuition to the state’s average wage, the reaction ranged from enthusiastic to cautious.
Republicans, who released their budget Tuesday, said it would be the first reduction in tuition since the 1970s.
Students, not surprisingly, were pleased by the proposal — a move that would dramatically reverse a steep increase in the cost of going to college that took place during the recession.
“A tuition cut would be huge for students,” University of Washington student Austin Wright-Pettibone, who heads the office of government relations for UW student government, wrote in an email. “We’re thrilled to see so much attention being paid to higher education in both the House and Senate budgets.”
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Tuition has gone up sharply since 2008 because Washington lawmakers cut funding to higher education by about 50 percent during the recession. The state had the second-largest tuition increases in the nation between fiscal years 2008 and 2013.
If the Senate’s proposal is approved, “a lot more students are going to be able to afford college,” said Garrett Havens, executive director of the Washington Student Association, which represents college students in the state.
He said the proposal would take us to a place “where students are going to be able to work and cover the costs, at least, of their tuition.” And while he was initially concerned that the Republican budget wouldn’t fully fund the four-year institutions, he said it appears the money is all there.
The budget gives higher-education institutions $221 million over the biennium to offset the loss of tuition dollars. Lowering tuition would also save the state $75 million in financial aid, according to budget writers. All told, they said, the budget increases state funding to colleges and universities by about 20 percent.
Universities reacted cautiously to the proposal. And it’s not clear how the proposal would affect the Guaranteed Education Tuition program, the state’s prepaid college-tuition plan, although the proposal’s supporters are exploring how to adjust the program so that parents who have invested in it aren’t penalized.
UW Interim President Ana Mari Cauce said in a statement that while the budget appears to pay for tuition reduction, it had some “troubling aspects,” including less money for employee raises than was negotiated in UW’s collective-bargaining agreements. If the proposal were to pass, she wrote, “thousands of our employees will not receive the wage increases they deserve.”
Chris Mulick, Washington State University’s director of state relations, said the Senate appears to be planning to fully backfill the dollars universities will lose from the tuition cut, although some of the numbers are different from those the Senate presented earlier. “It’s within the margin of error,” he said. “They are doing what they said they intended.”
The budget also provides the $2.5 million WSU requested to begin its quest to start a new medical school, but it does not provide enough money for the UW to continue to support its Spokane-based medical-school program, much less increase its enrollment, according to Cauce.
That’s a difference from the House, too, which gives money for both the WSU medical school and an expansion of the UW program in Spokane.
Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard said the Senate budget contains a budget error that leaves Western short by $5.5 million, but that the Senate acknowledged the error and was working to correct it. He praised both the Senate and the House for recognizing that higher-ed dollars need to be protected from cuts.
The budget in the Democrat-controlled House, rolled out last week, freezes tuition for two more years, rather than cutting it. It has been frozen since fall 2013.
Under the Senate’s plan, tuition would be lowered and capped at 18 percent of the state’s average wage for the UW and WSU; 14 percent of the average wage for the state’s other universities and The Evergreen State College; and 6 percent of the average wage for community and technical colleges.
The proposal is based on a bill introduced by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia.
The cuts would be phased in over two years. Tuition at the UW and WSU would drop by about $1,000 for the 2015-16 academic year, and an additional $2,000 the following year, and total tuition would be $7,560 by 2016-17. That number does not include mandatory fees.
Central, Eastern and Western Washington universities, and Evergreen, would all drop their tuition to $5,400 a year by 2016-17.
Only the community colleges would not see a tuition change, since their tuition is already low.
For parents who have invested in the GET program, it appears that supporters of the Senate proposal expect adjustments would be made.
GET investors prepay for college at a premium price because they expect tuition to be even higher when their children go to college.
But what if tuition goes down?
In a House committee meeting last week, Braun said if the tuition cut passes, there would need to be an adjustment to GET — possibly like a stock split. A parent who held 100 GET units, for example — an amount that pays for tuition for one year at the state’s most expensive university — might end up with additional GET units.
GET officials said they have been working with the state actuary, legislators and staff to figure out what would happen to the program if tuition were cut.