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Tuition freeze is baby step in right direction for lawmakers

Wed., Sept. 25, 2013

Classes start today at Eastern Washington University. While every new school year brings a sense of hope and new beginnings, this year also brings something that is virtually unheard of – at least in the lifetimes of most new undergraduates.

Tuition didn’t go up.

If this seems modest and unremarkable to you, consider this: This is the first time in 27 years that resident, undergraduate tuition has not risen at EWU or Washington State University or the University of Washington or the community colleges …

Tuition goes up like the sun rises. It never doesn’t go up, seemingly, and it usually goes up by multiples of the rate of inflation.

Until this year. A tuition freeze across the state arrives this autumn thanks in part to the wrangling of Senate Republicans and their two crossover Democrats in Olympia – a group that has received its share of blame, including here, for an obstructionist approach to the budget. But on this question, they deserve credit for helping to halt a horrid pattern that has become simple habit: The state has done a worse job of funding higher education with every passing year, and both the Legislature and the universities have acted as if they had no choice but to raise tuition, again and again, and often by grotesquely high margins.

“We have to get back to having excellent universities at a price students can afford,” said Sen. Michael Baumgartner, the Spokane Republican who took up tuition as a cause. “College is just too damn expensive.”

Part of the reason for this year’s tuition freeze is that the Legislature raised higher ed funding by 12 percent; that came with a required tuition freeze this year, and it seems likely that it will stay where it is next year as well. That didn’t come to pass only because of the so-called “Majority Coalition Caucus” in the Senate, which is really just the GOP plus two Democrats; it only worked because lawmakers figured out a way to fund the freeze, said Sen. Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat.

“Freezing tuition is only half the equation,” he said. “You have to have the resources to pay for it. We had a bipartisan budget that provided the resources to freeze tuition.”

For decades now, increasing tuition at public universities and colleges has gone hand-in-glove with an abdication of responsibility by state governments, a massive shift from a system of higher education that is largely publicly funded to one that is largely not. Whatever the underlying problems, however, a continual, unsustainable rise of tuition cannot be the solution; we are now graduating young adults with Mercedes-Benz levels of debt. It is a grossly insufficient response to simply point the finger at declining state funding and raise the tuition again.

Remember the recent debate in Congress about the interest rates charged on student loans?

It’s easy to forget, Baumgartner says, that whatever the interest rate, “The principal is too high.”

This year’s tuition at EWU, for three quarters, will be $7,371. Same as last year. The last autumn that Eastern’s tuition held level, Reagan and Gorbachev were talking nuclear defense and Bill Buckner was blowing that grounder. It was the beginning of the 1986-87 school year, and the tuition for three quarters was $1,212.

At Washington State University, which started classes about a month ago, tuition is $11,396 for this academic year, just as last year. The last time it didn’t go up was 1986-87, when it was $1,606.

We have become so accustomed to this aspect of college pricing – to a historical pattern so out of whack with the cost of everything else that it seems to exist in an entirely different economy – that some of us are no longer sticker-shockable. But let me try: WSU tuition is now 710 percent of what it was in 1986-87, when the typical cost of everything else went up at less than a third of that rate.

Historical tuition rates at Washington’s colleges and universities tell a story of a simpler time. The truth is, back before the last time that tuition didn’t go up, tuition didn’t go up somewhat regularly. At EWU, tuition stayed level during five of the seven years before 1986-87. At WSU, in the 14 years prior to the last time tuition didn’t go up, tuition didn’t go up half the time.

There’s a lot to this issue. A certain number of smart people suggest that we should worry less about high-cost education than we should about providing enough financial aid – the so-called “high-cost, high-aid.” The way we’ve got it built now, though, high cost erodes high aid.

Baumgartner notes that rising tuition has a ripple effect – since the State Need Grant for low-income students is based on tuition, tuition has a direct effect on how many students get the grant.

Tuition is also tied to the state’s Guaranteed Education Tuition program, in which parents buy tomorrow’s tuition at today’s prices. The tuition freeze will help stabilize the GET program.

Things have changed a lot since the 1970s and ’80s. Merely wishing for a return to those days won’t get us back there. But the tuition freeze is worth celebrating – even more so if it reflects a long-term change from the unsustainable path that we’re on.

“We’ve really screwed it up over the last decade,” Baumgartner said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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