House Republican leaders say they went out of their way to protect higher education in their budget proposal released Monday.
Student leaders aren’t so sure.
The proposal would allow more students to enroll in state colleges. It avoids further program cuts and offers pay raises for faculty and staff.
“We are being very good to higher education,” said House Majority Leader Dale Foreman, R-Wenatchee.
But critics note the proposal would increase tuition while scrimping on financial aid, pricing some low-income students out of an education.
“You can call it access, but who is it access for?” said Johan Hellman, executive director of the Washington Student Lobby. “It’s access for anyone who can afford it.”
The House budget proposal gives state colleges $26 million to open the doors to 5,000 additional students over the next two years.
Republican leaders say that would help ease the access crisis now plaguing the state’s universities. According to 1992 figures, Washington ranks next to last in terms of the percentage of people age 17 and older enrolled in public four-year colleges.
But the budget includes little extra money in financial aid to compensate for the 5,000 students it would add to the system.
“They didn’t put any additional money in for the additional students, but they are going to be eligible for financial aid, too,” said Rep. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle.
The Republican proposal does offer some additional financial aid for laid-off workers to pursue job training at community colleges and for outstanding high school students.
However, there’s no extra money for the state’s aid program that offers grants to needy students. That would make it harder for low- and middle-income students to get financial aid.
Students are currently eligible for state “need” grants if their family income is $22,000 or less for a family of four.
The GOP proposal would lower that threshold to $16,000 or less, according to Shirley Ort, deputy director for student financial aid with the Higher Education Coordinating Board.
Jacobsen said the Republican budget also goes against the “tradition” of tying tuition increases to increases in financial aid. In-state undergraduate tuition would rise by 10 percent over the next two years, under the House budget proposal.
At Washington State University, tuition would go from the current $2,908 a year to $3,205 by 1997.
Colleges would also be given the option of boosting tuition by 20 percent a year for graduate students and 30 percent a year for non-resident undergraduates.
House Higher Education Committee Chairman Don Carlson, R-Vancouver, said he would like to have seen more financial aid money put in the budget proposal.
But Carlson said it’s more important to ensure that money is available to give pay raises to faculty and preserve academic programs from cuts.
“There’s only so much money to go around,” Carlson said.
Hellman and other student leaders are also skeptical of Gov. Mike Lowry’s financial aid plans.
“It’s a tough choice to make,” Hellman said. “It’s like, do you want to get kicked in the right knee or do you want to get kicked in the left knee?”
Lowry’s budget proposal also raises tuition, but offers little increased state money for financial aid. Instead, he wants to give businesses tax credit in return for making donations to college aid programs.
That proposal has been frowned on by lawmakers of both parties.