Bill: Put tuition hikes toward aid

Measure encourages higher education for the middle class

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House Bill 1795

American Opportunity Tax Credit

Tucked into H.B. 1795 is a mandate that state colleges and universities use "all reasonable means" -- including websites, online catalogs, admission and registration forms -- to better alert the public to an easily available federal tax credit.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit covers expenses for textbooks and other course materials, and tuition and fees not covered by scholarships or grants, up to $2,500 per student for each of the first four years of college. Forty percent of the credit is refundable.

The AOTC, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the large federal stimulus package, was due to expire in 2010, but Congress voted a two-year extension as part of economic measures adopted during its lame-duck December session.

Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, said the credit is widely overlooked by many who could benefit -- taxpayers with qualified expenses and modified adjusted gross income of $80,000 or less ($160,000 for joint filers) are eligible.

House Bill 1795

American Opportunity Tax Credit

Tucked into H.B. 1795 is a mandate that state colleges and universities use “all reasonable means” — including websites, online catalogs, admission and registration forms — to better alert the public to an easily available federal tax credit.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit covers expenses for textbooks and other course materials, and tuition and fees not covered by scholarships or grants, up to $2,500 per student for each of the first four years of college. Forty percent of the credit is refundable.

The AOTC, part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the large federal stimulus package, was due to expire in 2010, but Congress voted a two-year extension as part of economic measures adopted during its lame-duck December session.

Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, said the credit is widely overlooked by many who could benefit — taxpayers with qualified expenses and modified adjusted gross income of $80,000 or less ($160,000 for joint filers) are eligible.

In recent years, tuition at Washington’s public universities and colleges has gone up and up and up.

Millions of dollars are now diverted to financial aid, a somewhat effective means to soften the blow on lower-income families and students.

So who gets squeezed most? Why, the middle class, of course: Too many assets to qualify for numerous student grants or loans, hardly enough to elude the bite of relentless tuition hikes.

New legislation co-sponsored by state Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, includes an attempt to relieve the oft-frustrated middle, and to improve higher education outcomes.

Assigned to the House Higher Education Committee, House Bill 1795 would establish the “Higher Education Opportunity Act.”

It would amend tuition-setting authority to require that any four-year institution that raises tuition more than 7 percent on or after Jan. 1, 2012, must commit half the excess revenue (beyond 7 percent) “for the express purpose of supporting financial aid programs for middle class students with incomes up to 125 percent of the median family income” — and to otherwise mitigate the effect of tuition hikes on the middle class.

“This bill establishes a very strong beachhead, that we need to do something to help middle-class families,” Probst said. The issue “is critically important to me,” he said.

H.B. 1795 justifies the rule with language that declares higher education “an indispensable form of currency” for the 21st century, and a vital job-creation engine. It notes “a profound shift” in Washington’s higher ed funding in recent years, from heavy state support to more and more reliance on families.

For example, Clark College students were hit with 7 percent tuition hikes the past two years, a cumulative 14.5 percent increase. (As a counter-measure, from August through last month, Clark disbursed $51 million in student financial aid to more than 11,000 students — compared with $43 million during all the previous school year.)

Meanwhile, tuition at Washington’s four-year universities jumped twice as much, 14 percent for two straight years.

The cash-strapped state can’t keep up with demand for help: 22,000 students eligible for State Need Grants (geared to lower-income students) went empty-handed in 2010, Probst noted.

Probst was among the initial co-sponsors of H.B. 1795, unveiled this week by Reps. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, and Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, chairman and vice-chairman of the Higher Education committee.

The measure has since gained nearly a dozen co-sponsors, mostly majority Democrats including Vancouver Rep. Jim Jacks. There are no guarantees the bill will advance, but Probst said it is a solid start toward a compromise to provide some broader tuition relief.

“If the handwriting’s on the wall (to continue state tuition hikes), let’s make sure we’re putting away at least some money available” to help, he said.

Other changes directed by H.B. 1795:

• New award criteria for State Need Grants based on “level of need,” rather than solely a first-come, first-served basis. That could include the number of children in a family, under new rules.

• A study and recommendations on how to keep the state’s Guaranteed Education Tuition prepaid plan “viable for students and families,” due by Nov. 1 this year.

• New benchmarks and a reporting system to distribute “consistent, easily understood data” to the public on each college’s annual performance. Included would be graduation and transfer rates; average time and credits taken to earn a degree; retention rates and remedial course enrollment; and other measures to capture performance of all incoming students, and not just traditional freshman.

The Legislature would use the data to better adjust policies.

• Each four-year institution must develop specific “action plans” to boost efficiency and cut duplication, which could include new learning technology, new recognition of prior learning experience and transfer credits, and the creation of three-year bachelor’s degree programs.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.