Shannon Brandvold’s family makes just enough money to pay her tuition at Eastern Washington University, but too much to qualify for most financial aid.
Like many students in that difficult middle ground, Brandvold rejoiced when the Legislature approved sweeping tuition cuts at the state’s public colleges and universities.
“I just remember I was really relieved,” said the 19-year-old junior, who studies humanities and Japanese and works daily to pay her share. “It wasn’t going to be super stressful anymore.”
A year ago, Washington became the first state to substantially lower tuition since the recession. The Legislature poured nearly $160 million directly into the coffers of colleges and universities and capped how much they are allowed to charge students.
Some called it a “historic” effort to pull skyrocketing tuition rates back to earth. Nationwide, student loan debt has more than tripled in the past two decades, surpassing credit card debt in 2010, auto loans in 2011 and passing the $1 trillion mark in 2012, according to Mark Kantrowitz, a leading expert on student finances.
The reductions take full effect this fall, and despite initial concerns about the new funding model, students and administrators say the policy has been a resounding success.
“We’re tickled pink,” said Joan King, WSU’s chief financial officer. “We’ve never seen a tuition decrease before. We’re very happy with the way it worked.”
It was impressive enough that Washington schools managed to freeze tuition three years in a row, as the state continued recovering from the recession. Even at the start of the 2015 legislative session, few lawmakers thought dramatic cuts were possible.
“It was just kind of the mentality that colleges in our state would continue to see double-digit tuition increases,” said state Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane. “The problem with higher education in our state, politically, is that it’s almost every legislator’s fourth or fifth priority.”
The size of the reductions varied. Community and technical schools immediately shaved 5 percent from their 2014-15 tuition rates. The state’s top research institutions, WSU and the University of Washington, slashed 15 percent in two steps.
But the reductions have made the most difference for students like Brandvold. The state’s regional schools – Eastern, Central, Western and the Evergreen State College – now have lopped 20 percent from their 2014-15 rates.
That left schools with big holes in their budgets, and the Legislature, to the surprise of many observers, filled them.
“I don’t know that any other state did this,” King said. “I just don’t think other states are ready to reinvest in higher ed.”
Some administrators worried the Legislature wouldn’t make schools “whole” after requiring them to lower tuition. Greg Stevens, the chief administrative officer for Community Colleges of Spokane, said the district lost a small fraction of its budget in the deal, but the difference had no significant impact.
Some schools, including EWU and UW, had to adjust their budget proposals during the 2016 supplemental legislative session, but representatives of those schools said they were again made whole.
Starting in the next academic year, schools won’t be allowed to raise tuition faster than the rate of growth in the state’s average wage. In other words, it should’t get more expensive for the average Washingtonian.
“The cost of higher education hasn’t changed – it stayed flat,” said David Buri, EWU’s director of government relations. “It’s a change in that mix of state support versus tuition, and it’s a big deal.”
He added, “I really think the legislators were surprised by how much this resonated with the public, and by how inexpensive it was.”
More work to do
Students have generally praised the tuition cuts, but some say they don’t necessarily help everyone who wants to attend college.
“What we really need to see is different ways to fund higher education,” said Nora Selander, a senior at Western Washington University and a vice president of the Washington Student Association.
The WSA, a student lobbying group, has been calling on lawmakers to “fully fund” the State Need Grant program, which serves students from low-income families.
In 2015, there wasn’t enough grant money for about 27,000 – more than a quarter – of the students who were eligible to receive it, said Aaron Wyatt, a spokesman for the Washington Student Achievement Council.
Funding for the program has been flat for several years, and the council estimates it would take $245 million to deliver the grant to every student who qualifies, Wyatt said.
But with K-12 education and mental health care topping the list of legislative priorities, acquiring that money is no easy task.
“It seems like a dream, but that program is there and I think we need to fund it,” Selander said.
The deeper question is whether lower tuition or more financial aid – or some combination of both – will result in more college-educated Washingtonians. For many below the poverty line, a bachelor’s degree remains dauntingly expensive.
Without financial aid, poor students “increase borrowing, work more hours, enroll in fewer classes, take additional jobs and make significant changes to their living situation that are less conducive to academic success,” the Student Achievement Council says.
Lawmakers have outlined competing ideologies, but last year’s tuition cuts showed they are willing to work together.
When Democrats proposed free tuition at the state’s community and technical colleges – echoing a proposal from President Barack Obama – Republicans questioned where the money would come from.
And when Republicans proposed across-the-board reductions, Democrats balked – until the parties agreed to close some $300 million in tax loopholes.
“Frankly, it’s something we should do again,” said state Rep. Drew Hansen, the chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. “We should find several hundred million dollars in tax loopholes, that have outlived their usefulness, and put them into higher education.”
The Bainbridge Island Democrat said he plans to keep pushing for free community college, as well as a novel plan to cover tuition for some college dropouts who are 15 credits short of an associate or bachelor’s degree.
Baumgartner, meanwhile, has proposed dedicating a small percentage of the state’s sales-tax revenue to colleges, so the Legislature wouldn’t have to allocate lump sums each year.
“All dollars are green in Olympia,” he said. “The way money gets devoted to higher education is if the public demands it.”
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