Washington college students, who lobbied two years ago for a tuition cut that lawmakers did approve, are now back at the Capitol, asking for a tuition freeze this year, plus financial aid for all low-income students who qualify for it.
It’s hard to know how that will play out in a year when legislators are also on the hook for more robust funding of K-12 education, under a state Supreme Court mandate called the McCleary decision. In his budget, Gov. Jay Inslee has also called for a tuition freeze for in-state undergraduates.
In 2015, Washington was one of the few states in the nation to reduce in-state tuition for its public universities and colleges. The agreement came after four straight years of double-digit tuition increases at many colleges, as the state tried to balance its budget in the aftermath of the recession.
I can’t comment on the budget, but the Majority Coalition Caucus, that’s our goal, to keep colleges as affordable as we can.
Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, head of the Senate Higher Education Committee
The 2015 Legislature also set limits on the amount tuition could rise in subsequent years. According to that formula, tuition can go up only about 2 percent for 2017-18.
State Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, said he’d like to see another round of cuts to tuition rates. “Two years ago, we came to a bipartisan agreement to close tax loopholes to fund tuition cuts,” said Hansen, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee. “It would be great to do that again.”
His counterpart in the Senate, Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, didn’t go so far as to suggest a rollback or a freeze. “We’re always looking to keep it affordable,” she said. “I can’t comment on the budget, but the Majority Coalition Caucus, that’s our goal, to keep colleges as affordable as we can.” Wilson is heading the Senate Higher Education Committee.
Wilson’s committee will examine both affordability and efforts to make sure students “are taking good courses that will get them employed when they get out,” she said. “We want to make sure the degrees match the marketplace,” she added.
She also wants to tackle the high cost of college textbooks and student housing.
Wilson said she’s interested in allowing students to use State Need Grants to pay for certificate courses at community colleges. Right now, the grants are limited to students who are pursuing a degree. That means a student who wants to get a certificate in a high-demand job that pays well – Wilson used welding as an example – can’t get any state money to help pay for that training.
Her committee is also examining a bill, SB 5100, that would require financial-literacy seminars in colleges, with an emphasis on helping college students realize how much student loans cost.
Hansen says he’s committed to expanding the University of Washington’s computer-science program, so that it can admit all the students who meet the qualifications. “Every one of those students goes on to a great job,” he said.
His committee will also study and discuss ways to help students complete their degrees faster, another way for students can save money.
Alex Wirth, director of government relations for the University of Washington’s student government, said UW students want to make sure a tuition freeze, if it passes, is accompanied by enough money to make up for the tuition dollars the UW would lose.
For in-state students this year, undergraduate tuition and fees at the UW are about $10,700 – roughly the same price as in 2011-12.
Western Washington University students are also endorsing the freeze, along with the increase in State Need Grant.
Western students also want the Legislature to fund an increase in counseling services and academic advising, said Stephanie Cheng, student president for WWU. Western introduced the idea of providing more money for counseling and advising a few years ago, but it’s the only state university that hasn’t received any money to expand those services, she said.
The WWU students want student trustees on college governing boards to have full voting rights, and they’d like to have a more democratic process for choosing those trustees. Currently, they’re chosen by the governor from a small pool of candidates.
In his budget proposal, Inslee has proposed boosting the State Need Grant by $116 million for the biennium, but that would still leave out about 10,000 students eligible for the grant, Cheng said. The students are pushing for full funding, which would cost $202 million for the biennium.
Both student groups also want the Legislature to aid in preventing sexual assaults on campus. Wirth said the UW students would like to see the student-conduct exempt from the state’s Administrative Procedures Act. That code, which governs a wide swath of state government offices, means student-code violations are treated like “criminal-style investigations,” he said.
Student leaders think that has kept some students from reporting sexual assaults. “They think they won’t be believed, or that the system is too arduous,” Wirth said.