April 7, 2009 in City

University tuition could skyrocket 28 percent

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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OLYMPIA – Saying that the state cannot dismantle its colleges and expect to emerge from the recession strong, Gov. Chris Gregoire on Tuesday proposed letting the state’s four-year schools hike tuition by 14 percent a year each of the next two years.

Community colleges could boost their tuition by 7 percent a year.

The increase – about $500 a year more at the University of Washington, the state’s most expensive school – would be offset by recent increases in federal Pell Grants and tax deductions for tuition, the governor said. Plus, she added, tuition in Washington “is an absolute bargain” compared to other states.

“The recession will end, but in the meantime, we cannot damage our universities and colleges,” Gregoire said.

A House proposal to cut hundreds of millions of dollars, she said, “would take us years to return to where we are.”

Students were not pleased.

“The best form of financial aid is low tuition,” said Mike Bogatay, executive director of the Washington Student Lobby.

Students are saddled with loans and having a hard time finding summer jobs, he said. And those federal increases, he said, “were made to make college more affordable for students and families, not to make college more affordable for the state.”

Although tuition is an increasingly larger share of college costs, taxpayers also subsidize students. The amount varies. According to the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board:

•At Washington State University last year, students paid $6,245 in tuition and fees; taxpayers paid $2,939.

•At Eastern Washington University, the split was nearly equal. Students paid $4,587; the state paid $4,067.

•And at community and technical colleges, taxpayers pick up most of the cost. Students paid an average of $2,702 last year; taxpayers paid $3,732.

“We’re giving them a bargain,” Gregoire said. “We shouldn’t apologize for the tuition in Washington State.”

Gregoire said tuition hikes would be cheaper for students than having to pay for an extra semester or year in order to get into classes that are limited due to budget cuts. Surely, she said, students can come up with an extra $500 “to keep the doors open and graduate on time.”

The House budget would cut higher ed budgets by $700 million, Bogatay said.

“You can’t tuition your way out of numbers like that,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said that lawmakers will consider the idea.

But lawmakers worry about the effect on state financial aid and on the Guaranteed Education Tuition plan, which allows people to pay now for college costs down the road. Since the value of those GET units is pegged to tuition at the University of Washington, boosting tuition means also boosting the GET payouts.

And colleges can prioritize programs to ensure that classes are available to allow on-time graduation, Brown said.

“It’s difficult, but sometimes you have to let certain programs go in order to prioritize the core,” she said.

Lawmakers and the governor are also talking about changing the GET program so that the value of the units is no longer based solely on the cost at the state’s most expensive school. Units already purchased wouldn’t be affected, lawmakers and the governor’s budget director said.

Gregoire and some lawmakers are also talking about linking tuition to parents’ ability to pay. But for now, the governor said, higher tuition makes the most sense.

“We’re in a crisis,” she said. “We should not resort to a second-class educational system because we’re in a recession.”


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