OLYMPIA – Amid fears that cutting tuition would harm the quality of Washington’s higher-education programs, the state Senate passed a bill Wednesday that could slash rates by as much as 30 percent over the next two years.
“Student debt is out of control on a federal level and on the state level,” said Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor. “This bill will take us back to where we really need to be.”
Sponsored by Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the bill passed on a 37-12 vote. It would cap how much public colleges and universities could charge based on a percentage of the state’s average wage, which is about $52,600. Washington State University and the University of Washington could charge up to 14 percent, or about $7,400 per year. That compares to their current rates of about $10,300 and $10,700, respectively.
Regional colleges, like Eastern Washington University, could charge up to 10 percent. Community colleges could charge up to 6 percent, although they’re currently charging less than that.
To make up the difference, the Legislature would have to give colleges and universities a bigger cut of the state’s general fund, which is already strained by court orders to channel more money into mental health care and K-12 schools.
While nearly half of Senate Democrats voted for the bill, many raised concerns about finding that money.
“We do want to reduce tuition, but we don’t want it to be an empty promise,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle.
The colleges would need nearly $350 million per year to replace tuition, but savings in state scholarship programs would bring the net impact down to about $232 million. If the law is phased in through 2017, the impact next year could be as little as $112 million. That’s about three-tenths of 1 percent of the $37 billion general fund.
“This is pennies on the dollar for what we’re doing, for such a precious system,” said Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane.
Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said as the Senate’s budget writer he is confident in the proposal. But his counterpart in the state House, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said similar proposals have been shot down in the past, often because they don’t address disparities in wage or income.
“If you link (tuition) to average wage, you are screwing people whose wages aren’t growing,” Hunter said.
Jansen VanderMeulen, vice president of the Associated Students of Washington State University, said the proposal should adjust tuition based on the region that surrounds each college.
“It needs to take into account where students come from,” he said. “The average wage in King County is not the same as the average wage in Skamania County.”
The bill would not raise or create taxes to generate revenue. Opponents worried that eating into the general fund would result in larger classes, poor instruction and a decline in other services that colleges provide.
“If we do not have a funding source identified … how can we be assured of how we can pay for these tuition reductions?” Kohl-Welles asked her colleagues. “It doesn’t come free.”
Debt for students who borrow for college averages around $24,400. The bill’s supporters blamed stagnant levels of state funding that have allowed tuition to triple since the early 2000s.
“In the last seven years, we’ve seen tuition rise at a rate that is just crushing college opportunities for the middle class,” Braun said. The bill “sets up a good, long-term policy for the growth in our future.”
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