Democrats, Republicans tussle over tuition rates

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OLYMPIA — Next fall, college students could either see tuition increase by 5 percent or decrease by 3, depending on who wins the budget battle in the Legislature. The indecision on tuition rates is caused by two conflicting proposals issued by Democrats and Republicans.

On one side of the aisle, the Republican-leaning Senate majority coalition caucus has proposed that funding be increased by 10 percent to universities, tuition be cut by 3 percent, and $50 million be allocated to high-performing universities.

On the other side, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee proposed a 5 percent increase a year in tuition for the two research universities, Washington State University and the University of Washington, 3 percent for other four-year universities, and no tuition change for community and technical colleges.

At WSU Vancouver, tuition is $5,693 per semester for undergraduate students. A 5 percent increase in tuition amounts to $284.65 more a semester, while a 3 percent decrease means students would save $170.79, about the price of a science textbook.

Josh Wright, a lobbyist for students at WSU Vancouver, said he believes students would gladly welcome any tuition decrease, but they may not like consequences associated with it.

Wright said lower tuition is definitely "the endgame" of his lobbying efforts for the students of WSU Vancouver, but he also wants students' degrees to maintain their value. "To make degrees worthwhile, we want to hire good faculty, and to do that we need to pay them well," he said. "If we can't do that because we're not generating enough money (from tuition), professors may leave for better jobs and our degrees become less valuable."

Chris Mulick, director of state relations for WSU, said that though the university can't be sure which funding proposal would benefit the school most without an official budget being released, the "3 percent rollback would be problematic." He believes that the state now is underfunding WSU.

Mulick believes the governor's funding plan is "a pretty positive development in a challenging environment," though he mentioned that both plans have facets the university likes.

Though neither House Democrats nor the Senate coalition have proposed their final budgets yet, it is likely Democrats will adhere to Inslee's proposed budget in most regards.

"We are still looking at the details, but I think it's a solid proposal and we will be in broad agreement with him," said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, in a press release. Hunter is chair of the House Appropriations Committee, which will vote on the budget.

Hunter described the Senate plan as "smoke and mirrors" funding for higher ed in a video on his legislative website.

Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who originally proposed the Republicans' 3 percent tuition decrease, was disappointed in Inslee's budget proposal, saying the governor "didn't get it."

Baumgartner, vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said letting tuition continue to increase by 5 percent a year is "irresponsible."

The Senate coalition caucus is expected to release its official budget sometime this week, with House Democrats following soon after.