Politics Blog

Washington lawmakers propose cutting, capping college tuition

Wouldn’t it be great if college tuition were cheaper in Washington state?

Sens. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, and John Braun, R-Centralia, introduced a bill Thursday, Feb. 12, that could make that happen, but the cutback comes with a more than $220 million price tag that they’re not quite sure how to fund yet.

In a news conference Thursday afternoon, Bailey, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, and Braun, deputy majority leader, said Washington’s students are coming out of college with loads of student loan debt, which is causing some of them to put off major life decisions such as buying homes and cars, or starting families.

“Despite having one of the most generous financial aid programs in the country, more than 50 percent of students still graduate with debt,” Bailey said.

The College Affordability Program ( SB 5954) would link tuition to the average state wage: Research schools like WSU and UW would be capped at 14 percent of the average state wage, regional schools like Western Washington University would be capped at 10 percent, and community colleges would be capped at 6 percent.

That would make for a major reduction in tuition at the bigger schools, Braun said, with WSU and UW dropping tuition about 30 percent, and regional schools dropping tuition about 25 percent. Community colleges are already at or below their mark, he continued.

What does that look like in dollars? Well, full-time, in-state tuition for 2014-15 at WWU is estimated to be $7,503. (That doesn’t include the $1,462 in estimated fees, or the $10,042 WWU estimates is needed for housing and meals.)

The average Washington state wage was $52,945 in 2012, the most recent year available, according to the Office of Financial Management. (The fact that more recent data isn’t available doesn’t affect this example, because tuition at WWU has been $7,503 since the 2012-13 school year.)

That means tuition would need to drop about $2,200 per WWU student, or closer to 30 percent, to get to the cap set by the program.

So, who gets the bill when tuition drops like that?

“We’re not asking the universities to absorb this cost,” Braun explained. “We need to make a state investment.”

An investment of about $226 million, just more than half a percent of the entire $37 billion biennial budget, should fill the hole formed by the caps, Braun said.

“We have a lot of tough budget discussions ahead of us, but this should be among our priorities,” Braun said.

When a reporter from the Associated Press asked where exactly that $200 million might be found in the budget, Braun said, “That’s the million-dollar question.”

Senate Democrats were fast to respond after the news conference, emailing prepared statements about what they called the “GOP’s unfunded higher ed proposal.”

“This proposal marks the third time in three consecutive years that the Republicans have introduced an unfunded higher education mandate,” the Democrats’ email says, linking to SB 6043from 2014, and SB 5883 from 2013.

“I support lower tuition for our students and families,” said Sen. Marko Liias, D-Lynnwood. “Senate Republicans have not proposed a way to pay for this decision, which is irresponsible. We can’t dangle the false hope of lower tuition and distract from the urgent need to invest more into higher education. This proposal leaves out the hard part of the equation.”

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said everyone on both sides of the aisle wants affordable, accessible higher education.

“However, it’s not enough to just say that you want to lower tuition with a policy bill like this – the devil is in the details and the actual budgetary resources we will put behind it,” Frockt said. “That is not identified in this proposed measure. We look forward to working with our colleagues to increase funding for higher education in the 2015-2017 budget.”

The bill is scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Committee on Higher Education at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 17.