Bill to freeze college tuition tabled by state lawmakers

Substitute House bill instead aims to get state to foot bigger share

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OLYMPIA — A proposal to freeze college tuition was tabled by legislators in the House, after a bill intended to limit tuition hikes for undergraduates was stripped of that language.

House Bill 1624, which received a public hearing Monday, was originally written to prevent four-year universities from increasing tuition, except to compensate for inflation. Instead, the bill's substitute would create a task force intended to research funding policies for higher education.

The substitute bill recognizes that affordable tuition should not exceed 10 percent of median household income, and also expresses the Legislature's intent to split tuition costs between the state and the student evenly.

Those hit particularly hard by skyrocketing tuition prices are nontraditional students, many of whom enroll at Washington State University Vancouver, said Joshua Wright, a lobbyist representing students at WSUV.

"WSU Vancouver's average age is 27," he said Tuesday. "The ones who take out student loans are already bleeding money to support families, they're not all 18 with scholarships and grants."

While WSU's Pullman campus had the most freshman applicants this year in school history, the Vancouver campus has decreased enrollment over the past few years, Wright said.

"Seventy-five percent of our students receive financial aid or scholarships, so tuition costs are critically important to our students," said Lynn Valenter, vice chancellor for Finance and Operations at WSUV. "Increasing tuition would have a negative impact on our enrollment."

Valenter added that tuition restrictions may or may not be a bad thing; it all depends on how the state decides to fund higher education. WSUV wants the flexibility to deal with potential funding cuts from the state, she said.

On average, students in Washington state pay about 70 percent of their tuition costs; they paid only 50 percent a few years ago. The legislator behind the tuition freeze proposal says that's unacceptable.

"The battle is far from over," said the bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Gerry Pollet. "As the bill moves through the Legislature, it may be amended again to reflect a promise that we won't increase tuition."

Pollet, D-Seattle and vice chairman of the Higher Education Committee, said that as of this year, tuition costs more than 20 percent of median household income. He said he wants the bill to limit tuition increases to at most 5 percent for inflation, as opposed to previous 15 percent hikes.

'Schools in a bind'

Pollet said the bill still achieved his goal of defining affordable tuition as 10 percent of the median household income. The state's projected medium household income for 2012 was $56,444.

Although Pollet's bill had been watered down, a couple of college students still spoke in its favor on Monday before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education.

"This bill helps establish an aspiration that tuition can be affordable in our state," said Angie Weiss, of the University of Washington.

Earlier in the year, the presidents of six major universities, including WSU, petitioned the Legislature to invest $265 million into their schools in return for a two-year tuition freeze. In response, some state senators have proposed Senate Bill 5420, which would do just that.

That bill is waiting to be heard in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Wright, of WSUV, said he is in favor of the state freezing tuition rates, but says legislators also should give universities more money.

"You're telling universities they can't raise their revenue stream, but they somehow need to cut costs, and that puts the schools in a bind," he said.

A two-year tuition freeze would help students and the state, as well, according to the state actuary's office.

Tuition spikes in recent years have threatened the sustainability of the Guaranteed Education Tuition program, funded by the state. GET is a program designed to help parents pay for college by selling units that add up to a year of tuition. A hundred units is equivalent to a year of tuition at the most expensive state university that year.

The program has started losing money because of tuition increases. According to research by the state actuary's office, GET could regain a sustainable income pattern if tuition was frozen for the next two years.