Most Washington State University students left parents to go to school at Pullman, where lunchrooms serve three meals a day and tuition costs $3,200 a year.
But at Eastern Washington University, which someday may become part of the WSU system, one out of three students is a parent and nearly half come from low-income households.
“EWU is an institution that appeals to lower-income groups,” said Lee Swedberg, biology professor and director of women’s programs. “These are people for whom the smallest expenses are very important.”
Differences in the economic class of students at the two schools raise questions about how students at low-cost EWU would benefit if it were absorbed by WSU, where tuition alone is at least $700 higher a year.
On Monday, state Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, asked the presidents of EWU and WSU to develop a merger plan that the Legislature could consider in January.
West said a merger might cure depressed enrollment at EWU’s Cheney campus and consolidate higher education programs offered by both institutions in Spokane. EWU is under a legislative mandate to add another 800 students or risk losing some state funding. It currently has 6,900 full-time students.
WSU officials said a merger would give EWU students access to a greater selection of academic programs while unleashing the economic force of a research university on Spokane and Cheney.
“In Spokane, we are still in an evolutionary stage” of developing higher education, said Bill Gray, chief executive officer and dean of WSU at Spokane.
Gray said WSU has been slow to expand in the city because of a one-of-a-kind agreement that requires the school to get prior approval for new programs from four competing colleges and universities.
WSU offers 16 degrees, operates in two buildings and has 280 full-time students in Spokane. But at WSU Tri-Cities, the university offers 23 degrees, uses eight buildings and has 664 full-time students.
Creation of new programs, however, does not guarantee access to them. Legislators may find it difficult to approve a merger if WSU raises Eastern’s fees and risks denying a higher education to those who can’t afford it.
WSU president Sam Smith said Monday that the Cheney campus likely would continue as a four-year residential and commuter university. But over time, he said, fees charged to students in Cheney likely would become identical to those in Pullman.
WSU officials said undergraduates living in Pullman dormitories currently pay about $7,700 per year for tuition and room and board. Eastern charges $6,000 for the same services.
Those cost differences have attracted low-income students to Eastern by the hundreds. Forty-eight percent of Eastern’s student body are low income, Swedberg said. One out of five earn less than $10,000 per year. Dozens get child-care subsidies; some bring their children to classes when elementary schools are closed.
“Eastern Washington is better served if we have more choices for higher education,” said Sen. Lisa Brown, who serves Spokane’s impoverished 3rd District.
Eastern president Marshall Drummond said he would fight any move to raise tuition as part of the merger. He said lawmakers in other states have successfully designed two-tier systems for charging different fees to students at separate campuses.
“This (merger proposal) isn’t some kind of disappearing of Eastern,” he said. “People should understand that programs here aren’t going to change regardless of what we change in administrative governance.”
Drummond said that if the merger was correctly structured, Eastern could benefit from WSU’s aggressive fund-raising and student recruitment efforts. Some administrative functions also could be streamlined to reduce duplication and costs to taxpayers.
Taxpayers currently contribute $4,153 to WSU for every full-time undergraduate student. That compares with $5,055 for undergraduates at Eastern, according to the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board.
WSU cost taxpayers less because its fixed costs are spread among a greater number of students. However, the cost for graduate students, who typically are engaged in research, is much higher at WSU than Eastern.
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