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May 19, 2014 at 6:33 AM

Washington a leader for the nation in tuition increases, quietest tax hikes around

Suzallo Library at the University of Washington. (photo by Seattle Times)

Suzzallo Library at the University of Washington. (photo by Seattle Times)

Washington officials always like to say this state is a leader for the nation in something-or-other. Let’s see who wants to take credit for this one. This state ranks second in the way it stuck college-bound students and their parents with the tab for the Great Recession — second from the worst, that is.

After the recession hit in 2008, Washington jacked up in-state tuition at the state’s four-year schools by $4,045. That’s an average 61 percent increase, in inflation-adjusted dollars. Only one state raised tuition more – Arizona, by $4,493.  Lest anyone be disappointed that Washington missed top honors, this state had higher tuition to begin with, and the increase puts this state at an average $10,811, well ahead of Arizona. So Washington, take a bow.

The numbers come from a new report from a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C., the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, showing how states balanced their budgets by imposing a hidden tax on students and parents in the form of tuition increases. Its conclusions are rather a matter of progressive dogma, and they ought to be taken with some skepticism – the numbers are the more interesting part. They show some states were considerably worse than others in the way they treated higher education during the recession, and Washington was one of the worst of the bunch.

The report takes publicly available data about tuition from the College Board and other sources and weaves a story. When recession hit, states were forced to cut billions of dollars in real and projected spending. But they treated public higher education differently than they did social services or general government. State legislatures didn’t shut down campuses. Instead, states paid less and students and parents paid more. The average tuition increase nationwide was about $2,000 over the last five years. Washington doubled that.

The steep tuition hikes in this state reflect the particularly deep trouble this state experienced when recession hit. Washington lawmakers set themselves up for a fall when they increased state spending by a third during the boom years that preceded the meltdown. Even if the economy had remained sound, the spending couldn’t have been sustained without a tax increase. Then recession hit and tax revenue tanked, and the state went into freefall.

The report demonstrates the progressive way of thinking about these things — it faults state legislatures for their reluctance to raise taxes in the middle of a recession or when business was just starting to recover. There are plenty of other ways to tell that story. For instance, we might also blame the fact that states failed to put a priority on higher education – they might have cut other things. And in a sense the states did raise taxes — they just did it on students and parents, in pretty much the worst way possible, by forcing kids to take out loans that will hang over them for years. The report’s solution is to tax the usual suspects — making big corporations pay, closing business tax loopholes, and so forth — and it disses other approaches, like letting economic growth do at least part of the job, correcting the problem over time.

The argument is unfortunate but predictable. Giving education first claim on the taxes that are generated by a rebounding economy is one of the more promising ideas in this state’s quiver.  Matters here are complicated by a state Supreme Court ruling requiring lawmakers to beef up spending on K-12 education. As a rebounding economy dumps additional tax revenue in state coffers, statehouse Republicans suggest a big chunk of the money might be earmarked for education, for early-learning, K-12 and higher ed. They suggest two-thirds. Other constituencies dependent on public spending naturally don’t think much of that idea, in this state and elsewhere — it means less money for them.

Over the last two sessions, Washington lawmakers have begun to draw the line on tuition hikes — they have increased higher education spending by 15.5 percent, an average $872 a student. Tuition has not increased since the 2012-2013 school year.  But when the five-year average is considered, this state’s spending per student remains $2,498 less than it was before recession, a 27.8 percent decrease in state support.

Take the political spin for what it’s worth and the report becomes a useful document. It tells us just how big that hidden tax increase was in Washington state, how much larger it was than in most other states, and that lawmakers have a long way to go before they get back to even.

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