Politics & Government

No more tuition cuts in Washington. Cost of college set to rise with new budget.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee holds up his pen after he signed a new two-year state operating budget Friday at the Capitol in Olympia. The budget was approved by the Legislature earlier in the day, just in time to avert a partial government shutdown.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee holds up his pen after he signed a new two-year state operating budget Friday at the Capitol in Olympia. The budget was approved by the Legislature earlier in the day, just in time to avert a partial government shutdown. AP

College tuition will be more expensive for Washington students under the state budget passed last week, a departure from tuition freezes and cuts ordered by lawmakers in recent years.

The Legislature approved an annual tuition hike of roughly 2 percent at the state’s public four-year schools and community and technical colleges — the first increase since the two-year budget in 2011.

Lawmakers froze tuition in 2013 and reduced it at four-year colleges by 15-20 percent in 2015. Community colleges got a 5 percent tuition cut at the time.

This year, an expensive court order to fully fund K-12 schools drove the trend reversal.

Jaime Smith, spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, said in an email the budget’s focus “was on K-12, so the higher (education) package is much more modest.”

Lawmakers approved $1.8 billion in new state spending for K-12 schools over the next two years to comply with a 2012 state Supreme Court ruling known as the McCleary decision.

Over four years, legislators say the state will spend about $7.3 billion on public schools to reduce Washington’s reliance on local levies currently being used to pay for basic education.

The college tuition hikes represent a loss for Democrats during budget negotiations. Inslee and the majority-Democrat House proposed freezing tuition for two years, a plan with a $56 million price tag.

Budget writers in the GOP-controlled Senate asked for the roughly 2 percent increase — a flip in policy stances from years past. Senate Republicans championed the 2015 tuition cut and were the first to propose the 2013 freeze.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, a Republican from Ritzville, said meeting McCleary made the idea of a tuition freeze “more challenging” this year. He also praised a 2015 law tying tuition increases to wage growth.

“We started with a freeze, we went to a significant decrease, but that decrease was always linked to a predictable tuition model,” Schoesler said Monday. “When we did the cuts, we had a bipartisan agreement to do a predictable tuition plan that was linked to hard working taxpayers income so that they wouldn’t lose ground as they saved.”

Schoesler said Democrats prioritized social services over a tuition freeze during budget talks when negotiating government spending not related to McCleary.

State Rep. Drew Hansen, a Democrat from Bainbridge Island who chairs the House Higher Education Committee, called the limits on raising tuition “one of the great bipartisan victories of the last several budgets,” but said Democrats wanted to freeze tuition anyway to keep costs lower.

He called the upcoming tuition hikes “unfortunate,” but added: “That’s what happens in divided government.”

The new state budget does put some money toward higher education, including $50 million for the State Need Grant financial aid program. That $50 million makes sure recipients aren’t hurt by upcoming tuition hikes and increases financial aid awards for students at private four-year schools.

Grants for students at private schools have been lagging behind those for public universities, Hansen said.

The budget also reduces a lengthy waiting list for need grants by about 875 students per year. The House budget plan asked to reduce the wait list by about 6,000 students while the Senate proposed maintaining existing service levels.

Programs for science, technology, engineering and math at the University of Washington and community and technical colleges got a $3.5 million boost in the new budget, along with $15 million for medical schools at Washington State University and UW.

Joe Dacca, director of state relations for the UW, said the university is happy higher education “didn’t take any massive cuts” and even saw increases in spending on the need grant program and more in a year with so much attention on McCleary.

“I think everybody knew heading into this session this was going to be a K-12 education-focused budget and there was no way around that,” he said. “I think all things considered it could have been worse.”

Dacca also praised the collective bargaining agreements negotiated between Inslee and state workers and approved by lawmakers in the budget. The contracts will give raises to many university employees, he said.

In the future, Schoesler said he’d consider a tuition freeze or tuition cuts, as well as increasing funding for need grants. If those ideas aren’t financially feasible, the limits set on tuition increases should keep costs down for students, he said.

“At the very least we stay the course with the predictable tuition plan,” he said.

Walker Orenstein: 360-786-1826, @walkerorenstein