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Originally published Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Why do lawmakers want to raise tuition? A Q&A

Gov. Chris Gregoire and state lawmakers have proposed big cuts to higher education. Gregoire also has floated the idea of raising university tuition by a cumulative 30 percent over the next two years. Many parents and students have fundamental questions about the proposed changes — some of which we posed to university and state officials.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

Gov. Chris Gregoire and state lawmakers have proposed big cuts to higher education. Gregoire also has floated the idea of raising university tuition by 30 percent over the next two years.

Many parents and students have fundamental questions about the proposed changes — some of which we posed to university and state officials.

Q: Why are Gregoire and some lawmakers proposing such big tuition increases?

A: It stems from the financial crisis. To balance the budget at a time of precipitously falling revenues, the state Senate has proposed cutting university and community-college funding by $513 million over the next two years. The state House has proposed even deeper cuts, of $683 million.

The universities say that would reduce the amount of state money they get by about a quarter or a third — and that they need to be able to increase tuition to offset some of the losses. They argue the alternative would be to teach thousands fewer students at a time when demand is peaking.

Some lawmakers have said tuition increases should be kept to 7 percent, and that universities must make savings in their administration and other functions. Gregoire at first proposed a temporary tuition surcharge lasting two years, but her latest proposal may indicate Olympia is more willing to consider substantial tuition increases.

Q: What proportion of a student's education does tuition cover? Has that changed over time?

A: The University of Washington says tuition and fees cover about 58 percent of a student's education, up from 43 percent earlier this decade. Western Washington University says tuition and fees, which are lower than at the UW, cover about 40 percent of a student's education, up from 28 percent five years ago.

Washington is one of many states that has reduced its relative contribution to higher education over time. Part of the explanation is that the costs of health care and prisons have taken an ever-increasing bite out of state budgets, limiting the money available for other programs.

Debate continues over whether to consider higher education primarily a public good (something that benefits everyone in society) or a private benefit (something that helps an individual earn a better wage).

Q: Would a big increase in tuition mean fewer low- and middle-income students attending college?

A: There is little doubt that tuition increases would put more strain on low- to middle-income families. The state Higher Education Coordinating Board says there is "substantial national research to suggest that high tuition can reduce participation by lower-income students — especially if tuition rises consistently faster than inflation over time."

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Middle-income students also would be affected adversely because they would need to take on more debt, according to the HEC board.

The universities point out that recent increases to federal financial aid, coupled with an increase in the amount of tax credit that families can claim for higher education, would help offset the increased cost of tuition, at least initially. The UW calculates that any family earning up to $96,000 a year would not be any worse off after the first two years of 14 percent tuition increases.

Many colleges, including the UW and Washington State University, guarantee that families with the lowest incomes aren't required to pay any tuition at all.

Students who want to complete a baccalaureate degree but are concerned about the cost may want to consider a "2+2" education in which they complete their first two years at a community college, where tuition is substantially cheaper, before transferring to a university for their junior and senior years.

Q: Couldn't universities save money and slots for Washington students by reducing the number of out-of-state and foreign students?

A: Foreign and out-of-state students pay the full cost of their education and are not subsidized by the state at all. The UW says about 20 percent of its students are from either other states or other countries, which it doesn't consider high. Western says only 7 percent of its students are from other states or countries, and that it wants to increase that percentage — both so students are exposed to more diverse viewpoints and also to help subsidize Washington students. The state leaves admission decisions to the individual universities.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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