The days of skyrocketing tuition at Washington’s public universities appear to be over.
Unprecedented tuition cuts contained in the new state budget will lower the cost of attending the state’s colleges and universities by up to 20 percent over the next two years, and any future increases will be capped at the average annual rate of statewide wage growth.
“It’s huge,” said state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who has pushed to cut tuition for years. “College students and their families are who really won here.”
Under the rollback, which lawmakers and others hope will gain national attention, in-state, undergraduate tuition rates at all public higher education institutions, including community colleges, will be reduced by about 5 percent this fall, with deeper cuts in the 2016-17 academic year at the state’s four-year colleges and universities.
The largest cuts by percentage will be at regional institutions, such as Eastern Washington University in Cheney, where tuition will fall by about 20 percent below current levels by fall 2016. The total reduction at Washington State University and the University of Washington will be 15 percent.
Because tuition rates vary at each school, the dollar value of each cut also differs.
Eastern will remain the least costly of the state’s four-year universities, with base annual tuition dropping to $6,166 this fall and then to $5,193 for full-time students in the 2016-17 academic year, according to the Legislature’s calculations.
“I am pleased to see the state reinvest in higher education and reduce the tuition burden on our students,” said EWU President Mary Cullinan, who made college affordability a key piece of the university’s legislative agenda this year.
The Legislature increased spending on higher education by nearly $200 million in the new state budget to offset the revenue loss from the reduced tuition levels. Lawmakers said additional spending was made possible by the expected increase in tax revenue from Washington’s improving economy and from the elimination of tax breaks.
Over the past 10 years, tuition has doubled at some of Washington’s universities as lawmakers slashed state funding during the recession and gave universities the authority to set their own rates. Tuition climbed so fast that lawmakers imposed a freeze in 2013.
The reductions will bring Washington’s tuition levels closer to surrounding states.
“This makes us very competitive. It’s a major statement,” Community Colleges of Spokane Chancellor Christine Johnson said Wednesday. “I think the student loan debt crisis is huge, and this is a very, very important step.”
Johnson and others praised the Legislature’s commitment to making higher education affordable, saying it will help increase student access and reduce debt.
The actual size of the cut is based on each institution’s current base operating tuition level, which is the largest portion of what students pay to enroll in school each year. Not included in the percentage reductions are additional student fees schools charge along with tuition each year.
Washington’s cut comes as education leaders nationwide warn that college is becoming too expensive and note too many students are graduating with enormous debt struggles.
Baumgartner, who initially pushed for a 25 percent tuition reduction, said it’s believed to be the first time in history a state has actually lowered tuition.
“We’ve been fighting this battle for five years,” he said. “Now, I think we can be a real leader in this and hopefully it will spread.”