Following the governor’s lead, lawmakers are considering ways to give college students a break this year.
Gov. Chris Gregoire wants to freeze community college tuition and set annual limits for other schools ranging up to 7 percent, but she also proposes millions in additional spending on salaries and programs at the state’s colleges and universities.
If Republican state Sen. Mark Schoesler has his way, tuition would be restricted even more, limited to the rate of inflation. While his proposal may face tough going in the Democratic Legislature, dissatisfaction with rising tuition seems widespread.
“Who’s getting a 7 percent return on interest as they save for college?” asked Schoesler, who represents the 9th Legislative District, which includes Washington State and Eastern Washington universities. “It’s becoming very obvious that student loans are growing to scary levels as these students are getting out.”
For a couple of decades, the state’s colleges and policymakers have shifted college costs onto students. According to the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board, state appropriations per student at Washington’s four-year schools have gone down over the past 15 years. Adjusted for inflation, the total appropriations per full-time student dropped from $9,501 in the 1991-93 biennium to $8,250 in 2005-07.
Meanwhile, over a similar period, tuition in the state has increased at more than twice the rate of personal income. That formula makes it harder for poor and middle-class students to earn their degrees, something that is an extra concern at the state’s community colleges. Gregoire has proposed freezing their tuition at $2,586.
“In general, our students are the most needy; they’re often working,” said Gary Livingston, chancellor of the Community Colleges of Spokane. “We’ve been passing (the cost) on to the students for too long.”
Like other higher education administrators in the region, Livingston said that a tuition cap will only work if the state steps up with more funding. The state’s system of community and technical colleges asked for $30 million to offset what it won’t get in a tuition increase, though Gregoire’s budget would provide not quite $20 million.
“So our work will be in the House and Senate, to get that back to $30 million, which we think is the real cost,” he said.
Gregoire’s caps for WSU and UW (7 percent) and for regional colleges like EWU (5 percent), are very close to the typical annual increase at those schools in recent years. But supporters of the proposal say that by setting a limit, the proposal will establish state priorities and prevent the kind of single-year spikes that have seen tuitions rise by more than 10 percent in some years.
It might also help the state avoid a financial crisis at some future point, with the rapid growth of the state’s pre-paid tuition program, in which families pay today’s rates for tomorrow’s tuition.
If tuition were to continue outpacing the rate of inflation, the state could find itself in a crunch when investors in the Guaranteed Education Tuition program cash in down the road. Some states have already run into such problems and have been forced to shut down enrollments or otherwise adjust their prepaid tuition plans.
“GET really won’t function very well after a certain point” of rising tuitions, said Larry Ganders, WSU’s lobbyist in Olympia. “GET is a factor. You can”t dispute that.”
Schoesler said that part of the motivation for a 7 percent cap on tuition at the state’s biggest schools is because that’s a key percentage for the future solvency of the GET program.
Attempts to reach officials with the GET program were unsuccessful this week.
With the state looking at a revenue windfall of $1.9 billion in the next biennium, Gregoire is proposing lots of additional spending on college campuses, including $1 billion for building projects and $400 million for faculty raises.
WSU President V. Lane Rawlins said he supports the governor’s budget because it recognizes that if state funding goes down, schools have just two choices: raise tuition and look for funds elsewhere, or allow the quality of the school to decline.
“I’m very much in favor of her proposal if we can follow through on all the other parts of it,” Rawlins said. “Where I have cried the loudest is the years when we raised tuition on students when state funding was going down.”
Schoesler said that his proposal to tie the rate of tuition increases to the inflation rate also contains a measure that would help ensure that the state meets its obligation to pay for college. His bill would require that state funding not be less than half the cost of instruction per student – roughly where it is now.
“We haven’t really done the job with higher education in the last 25 years,” he said.
Given his party’s minority status in the Senate, how optimistic is he about his proposal?
“All I want is a fair debate, a fair chance and we’ll see what happens,” he said.