For four years, it has been Republicans who have been holding the line on tuition in Olympia — first by freezing it, and then by pushing through a tuition cut.
Now, it’s Democrats who want to halt tuition increases at the state’s colleges and universities, while Republicans are proposing modest increases of about 2 percent a year.
GOP leaders — who control the state Senate with the aid of one conservative Democrat — say Washington state’s tuition policy has finally stabilized after years of double-digit tuition hikes under Democrats’ watch. The budget Republicans have proposed for the next two years focuses on adding more slots for students, while continuing a plan lawmakers approved in 2015 to tie tuition increases to growth in the state’s median wage.
Democrats, meanwhile, are less focused on boosting enrollment, saying they instead want to keep tuition costs down for the next two years. The budget plan House Democrats released this week would spend $56.3 million over two years to freeze undergraduate resident tuition, along with $72.7 million to extend state financial aid to 6,000 additional students.
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I think they’re two years late for the party.
State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, on Democrats embracing a tuition freeze
The policy flip has not gone unnoticed by lawmakers, especially Senate Republicans. GOP leaders were the first to propose freezing tuition in 2013, as well as cutting tuition in 2015 — policies that ultimately won the approval of the full Legislature and became law.
“I think they’re two years late for the party,” said Sen. John Braun, the lead Senate budget writer, about Democrats’ embrace of the tuition freeze.
“We’ve now got a clear policy in law that gives parents and students predictability,” said Braun, R-Centralia, referencing the 2015 plan to tie tuition increases to wage growth.
“What we’re worried about now is access to these colleges, and we address that.”
In 2015, lawmakers voted to cut tuition at Washington State University and the University of Washington by 15 percent over two years, while cutting tuition at other four-year universities by 20 percent over the same period. Students at community colleges got a 5 percent tuition cut.
State Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane and the lead House budget writer, said he still thinks too many students can’t attend college because of cost, and that’s the primary issue he and his colleagues are working to address this year by freezing tuition.
“They may have moved on, but we’ve stepped up,” Ormsby said of Senate Republicans.
“We’re trying to make college more accessible and affordable, so more students have the opportunity to succeed.”
From Republicans’ perspective, the main downside to freezing tuition for another two years is money, Braun said. Right now, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are working to comply with a 2012 court order to fix the way the state pays for schools.
We’re trying to make college more accessible and affordable, so more students have the opportunity to succeed.
State Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, the lead House budget writer
While Democrats have proposed raising about $3 billion in taxes over two years to help address the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling, Republicans are looking to avoid some of those taxes, Braun said. The GOP budget plan would institute a new statewide property tax to raise about $1.5 billion in the next two years, while eliminating local property tax levies that now go toward school district maintenance and operations.
At the same time, the GOP proposal would spend $28.8 million over two years to add 1,800 spots at the state’s four-year universities, mainly for students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
House Democrats don’t include that money to add enrollment slots, but instead pour more dollars into the State Need Grant for low-income students. The House budget would reduce the wait list for that financial aid program by 25 percent, from about 23,500 to 17,600 students annually, House leaders said.
House leaders also would dedicate enough money to ensure universities can cover their annual increases in operating costs, said state Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island.
“Our budget makes them 100 percent whole,” said Hansen, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee.
Either approach would work for us.
Randy Hodgins, vice president of external affairs at the University of Washington
For universities, that makes either budget plan a wash when it comes to tuition policy.
“The important thing for us is if you’re going to freeze tuition, there’s got to be a backfill, and the House did provide that,” said Randy Hodgins, the University of Washington’s vice president for external affairs. “Either approach would work for us.”
Hodgins said that while UW officials appreciate the extra spots for undergraduate enrollment in the Senate budget, they also want to see lawmakers boost funding for the State Need Grant and approve new labor contracts for university workers and other state employees, as the House budget would.
Both the House and Senate plans put $10 million toward the new medical school at Washington State University, which plans to welcome its first class of 60 medical students this fall.
State Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said Washington students may end up paying more for private school tuition simply because there isn’t enough room for them at the state’s four-year universities. At a news conference Tuesday, Stokesbary joked he may have the distinction of “of having the most student loan debt of any member of the Legislature,” after attending private schools out-of-state for seven years.
“I have a lot of friends who wish they could have gone to school here in-state, and there weren’t enough slots,” Stokesbary said. He called the Senate plan to add undergraduate enrollment slots at four-year universities “a really good direction.”