OLYMPIA — Science and technology majors may be paying more for college if laws are not changed, according to students who testified at a hearing this week.
State universities have the authority to increase tuition for high-demand degree programs because of legislative action two years ago. The universities sought the authority to potentially differentiate the cost between degrees as a way to pay for the most expensive science, technology, engineering and math degrees (STEM).
Legislators held a public hearing Tuesday to discuss a new bill, House Bill 1043, that would limit the university’s ability to increase tuition in this way.
Many supporters of the new bill were students from around the state.
Daniel Nguyen, president of the Associated Students of WSU Vancouver, said Wednesday, “All the (WSU) campuses, including ours, passed a resolution in opposition to differential tuition increases.”
“Charging higher tuition for fields that the industry desperately needs. … will create an additional barrier to students who want to take (high-demand) courses” said Angie Weiss, government relations director for the Associated Students of the University of Washington.
Students who spoke following Weiss explained that if one degree was more expensive than another, they would most likely choose the cheaper degree, even if they were not passionate about the subject.
Michael Kutz, a student at the University of Washington, spoke about the impact the tuition hikes would have for students exploring several different career paths. He explained that the tuition increases for certain degrees might prevent students from changing majors, a very frequent practice among his peers.
“Please preserve our ability to choose,” he asked the committee members.
Nguyen, a senior at WSU Vancouver, took the middle ground on the issue. He explained that WSU Vancouver’s engineering program operates expensive facilities that are not used by students in liberal arts majors. “I can see the logic in having them paying more fees” he said.
But Nguyen added that differential tuition increases are not the best solution to funding issues.
“It’s not the No. 1 sustainable method for maintaining funding,” he said.
Nguyen is majoring in both psychology and biology, and would be subject to a more expensive degree under differential tuition increases.
Chris Mulick, WSU’s state relations director, said WSU opposed the bill, but stressed the university had no immediate plans to use differential tuition.
“WSU has no desire to implement differential tuition in the near term,” he said. “The timing is flat rotten for us, seeing tuition increase by nearly 75 percent.”
He followed up by saying that WSU has struggled to fund the high-cost degrees.
“Ideally, this issue would be resolved by increased state investment,” he said at the hearing. But barring any increased funding from the state, he said, “differential tuition could be one tool that would let us more nimbly meet the needs of the industry.”
Representatives from Central and Western Universities echoed the same sentiments, citing a lack of state funding as the main catalyst for the tuition increases for high-demand degrees.
Margaret Shepherd, UW’s state relations director, also opposed the bill.
“We are opposed to this bill today because it does not provide an alternative to the expansion of high-demand programs at the University of Washington,” she said. “We don’t feel we can support (removing differential tuition) until a reasonable alternative is presented.”
Shepherd described passing the bill as “taking a tool away.”
One complication to implementing differential tuition involves the Guaranteed Education Tuition program, where parents or others prepay college tuition years before the student arrives at school. If tuition increases dramatically, as it has done in the past few years, the state has to make up the cost difference.
Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, sponsored the original differential tuition bill, HB 1795, in 2011. However, he testified in the hearing on Tuesday that his position has changed due to GET.
“I acknowledge that … (differential tuition) is a genuine and legitimate threat to the integrity of the GET program,” Carlyle said. “I support this (new) bill with great reluctance and great frustration.”
Tristan Hanon, WSU’s director of legislative affairs, worries what keeping the law could lead to. “Worst-case scenario, the University of Washington increases its tuition by $5,000, it wreaks havoc with GET, and other institutions follow suit,” he said.
Hanon believes that the current law would set a poor precedent for universities across the state, but he does not think their intent is to harm students.
“I don’t think they’re looking to make a quick buck here,” he said. He explained that universities are struggling to cope with reduced funding from the state.
Hanon also suggested that the state reinvesting in higher education would alleviate many of the problems that are currently being discussed by the Legislature. “You re-fund higher ed and these problems disappear,” he said.
Lucas Wiseman: 360-735-5477; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: col_olympia.