May 7, 2011 in Region

Deal gives universities ability to set tuition

Katherine Long The Seattle Times
 

SEATTLE — Lawmakers say they’ve come to an agreement in principle on a higher-education bill that would give the state’s five public universities and The Evergreen State College authority to set in-state undergraduate tuition for the next four years.

The legislation would help four-year schools make up some of the steep cuts being proposed in higher-education funding. It also would provide some financial aid for middle-class students to help them cover the higher tuition costs.

Washington is one of the few states in the country in which the Legislature sets tuition. Previous attempts to give schools tuition-setting authority have failed in past legislative sessions.

“In terms of the broad principles of what’s in the bill, we had … as of yesterday an agreement in principle,” Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, who has been involved in the tuition negotiations, said Friday.

State Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, chairman of the Senate’s Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, confirmed that lawmakers had a deal for the higher-ed bill.

“It’s a recognition that if we want quality educational institutions in Washington state, and we find ourselves to be in the crisis that we’re in, we have to find other ways to fund it,” Tom said.

The House could take up the legislation, HB 1795, next week.

If it passes, the governing board for each school — for example, the Board of Regents at the University of Washington — could set tuition rates starting with the fall 2011 session, said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.

The bill also encourages the schools to set higher rates for more expensive programs. For example, it might cost more to get an engineering degree than a history degree because engineering students do some of their work in labs, which can be expensive to operate.

In addition, the bill would set the UW’s in-state freshman enrollment at a minimum of 4,000 students, starting next year. That provision is in response to a decision this year at the UW to decrease in-state freshman enrollment by 150 students and admit more out-of-state and international students, who pay nearly three times as much in tuition. That decision did not sit well with some legislators.

Carlyle said the bill would provide financial assistance on a sliding scale to students from families who make up to 125 percent or less of the state’s median family income, or about $97,500 annually for a family of four. He said the provision would take some of the sting out of higher tuition for middle-class students, whose families often struggle to pay college costs but make too much to qualify for aid.

Currently, only students whose families make 70 percent or less of the median family income, or $54,500 for a family of four, are eligible for state tuition relief, in the form of state grant money.

“This will make the net effect of increases (to tuition) much more modest” for middle-class families, Carlyle said.

The money to backfill the tuition increases would come from students who pay full tuition, he said.

Jim Justin, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s legislative director, said the governor hasn’t seen the details of the bill. He said the governor would like the schools to have permanent tuition-setting authority, but added, “She’s appreciative of the work that they (lawmakers) have done and the flexibility that this bill does provide the universities.”

The bill also sets forth a series of accountability measures aimed at encouraging universities to get students to finish their degrees and graduate on time.

Carlyle’s bill, which originally was supported by college student groups, is now opposed by many of them, including the Washington Student Association and the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW).

“This bill is no longer in the best interest of students,” said Quinn Majeski, director of government relations for ASUW. Majeski said he and other students will lobby against the bill in Olympia on Monday.

They oppose the bill, in part, because after four years of unlimited tuition-setting authority, schools would have another four years of slightly more limited ability to set tuition. During the second four years, schools would be allowed to set a maximum rate based on tuition charged at comparable universities.

In the meantime, UW students are pushing for a change in state law that would put two more students on the UW’s regents board; currently, there is one student on the board.

It’s not known how much universities might raise undergraduate, in-state tuition this fall if they get authority to set their own rates.

Under the House and Senate budget proposals, tuition for the state’s three largest universities would increase 13 and 16 percent respectively each year for the next two years. Carlyle said those 13 to 16 percent increases probably serve as a kind of baseline, but tuition could go still higher.

Currently, UW in-state students pay $8,700 a year in tuition.

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