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April 22, 2014 at 6:09 AM

At long last, Washington lawmakers draw the line on tuition

State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.

State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.

You have to love what just went down at Central Washington University. Administrators offered a demonstration of college-and-university-level thinking when they figured out a way to raise tuition, even though a tuition freeze is in effect.

Then angry legislators jumped up and down and made a few screeching noises, and that was the end of that. The smart guys lost. But the even smarter ones won, and it represents a most-welcome sea-change in the Legislature’s thinking.

What happened is that this year’s budget bill says “tuition levels” are not supposed to increase, but tuition is always calculated by the credit. So Central staff proposed that for the first time, students who took more than 10 credits a semester could pay for the 11th credit, too. Without raising tuition, some 84 percent of Central students would have paid $266 more. Except to rather-less-discerning lawmakers, that certainly sounded like a tuition increase. So a number of nasty letters went back and forth between the school and the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. Finally the Board of Trustees decided that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to put the Legislature in a frothy rage, and Central dug into its reserves instead.

“Somebody needs to draw the line in the sand for college students, and I think we’ve done that,” says state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.

At long last. Lawmakers are beginning to blink, wake up, and notice what 30 years of tuition policy has done to access to college education in this state. Tuition has gone up virtually every year since 1981, whenever there has been a hiccup in the state budget. Or even when there haven’t been problems. It has happened every time the wind has blown.

College students and their parents have had to go deeper and deeper in debt to finance what amounts to a hidden tax increase, for programs that aren’t as important as education to the functioning of society. Back in 1980, resident undergraduate tuition at the University of Washington was $667 a year, and it covered about 18 percent of the cost of education. A student conceivably might have been able to pay the freight with a full-time minimum-wage job in the summer and a part-time job during the school year.

Today tuition and fees at the UW total a staggering $12,397 a year, and it covers about 71 percent of the cost of education. A big chunk of that tuition money is funneled back to the poorest students, in the form of financial aid. Yet the average University of Washington undergraduate leaves school with $21,471 in debt, and some leave with $30,000 or more. Debt has reached the point that students deserve fair warning that some majors may not offer much payback potential, says state Rep. Chad Magendanz, R-Issaquah. He won a budget proviso this past session that will require the state to provide information for national college-graduate income surveys. “We have a lot of psych grads who are waiting tables and wearing paper hats,” he says.  

Statehouse Republicans are leading the charge on tuition. They find it easy to blame the Democrats, because the other team has been in control of the Legislature for much of the last 30 years. Indeed, the worst of the tuition increases were the result of the unsustainable spending spree that came during Gov. Chris Gregoire’s first term. When recession hit, lawmakers took it out on higher education — UW tuition went up 94 percent.

But the failure really isn’t partisan. The policy change that started tuition soaring came in 1981, when Republicans were in charge of the House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion. When Republicans have been in position to negotiate budgets over the last three decades, they haven’t stood in the way of tuition increases, either.  

Tuition shouldn’t remain a partisan issue. Better that the freeze of the last two years reflects a new consciousness in the Legislature. Central Chief of Staff Linda Schactler points out that the school considered raising tuition because state funding hadn’t kept pace, because the Legislature granted four-year-schools the ability to raise their own tuition a few years ago for exactly that reason, and because Central held the line when other schools were raising tuition. Before the Legislature blames colleges and universities, she suggests lawmakers ought to look in the mirror.

What is so encouraging is that at long last they seem to be doing just that.

Comments | Topics: central washington university, college, higher education

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