Letter to the Editor: Tuition reduction is good news for Washington

Rep. Hans Zeiger | ranking minority member on the House Higher Education Committee.

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History is being made in Washington state this year, and the nation is watching. In June, legislators in Olympia passed a budget that reduces tuition at all state colleges and universities over the next two years.

Tuition will be reduced by 5 percent at all state institutions for the 2015-16 school year. Then in 2016-17, tuition will go down 15 percent at Eastern Washington University, Western Washington University, Central Washington University, and the Evergreen State College, and 20 percent at the University of Washington and Washington State University.

The Legislature increased state funding to colleges and universities to ensure that they do not have to reduce their institutional budgets as a result of tuition reductions.

Then, starting in 2017, a new tuition framework takes effect. Tuition increases will be limited to the average percentage growth in the median hourly wage for the previous 14 years. This is an effective limit on the future growth of tuition.

It’s about time.

For years, the Legislature took budget votes that imposed a steadily rising tuition bill on our state’s college students and middle class families. In 2009, the Legislature cut higher education by $500 million. In 2011, it was $600 million. Following that, we saw a 16 percent tuition increase at Washington State University and a 20 percent tuition increase at the University of Washington (UW). Tuition rose again by 16 percent at UW the following year. Between 2009 and 2012, state funding to UW fell by 50 percent, and tuition rose by 82 percent.

And so we have moved rapidly toward a high tuition, high-debt model of higher education. Student debt has grown and grown. Other education-related costs such as textbooks are rising. Add to that the cost of living for our college students, and students are faced with a choice—a choice between a debt burden that will take them decades to pay off on one hand, and avoiding college or dropping out of college on the other. This burden falls disproportionately on lower and middle income students and families.

Only in the 2013 state budget did we act on a bipartisan basis to freeze tuition for the first time since 1986. And we did that without raising taxes.

That was a good start, but it wasn’t enough.

Finally, this year, with more than $3 billion of additional revenue projected in the 2015-17 biennium over the previous biennium, legislators acted to reduce tuition. Credit is due especially to republican leaders in the state senate, including Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Andy Hill, Senate Higher Education Committee Chair Barbara Bailey, Senate Commerce and Labor Committee Chair Michael Baumgartner, and Senate Appropriations Committee Vice Chair John Braun. Braun was the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 5954, the legislation that started the discussion about a tuition freeze and placed the new tuition formula into statute.

More importantly, credit is due to student leaders who have been effective champions for the cause of higher education at the state level over the past few years. Associated student organizations have rallied members to come to Olympia, and student legislative liaisons have played a critical role in raising legislators’ awareness of the challenges facing students. Students and alumni have raised the profile of higher education issues at election times. With this latest budget, it is clear Washington’s college students have made a real difference. 

Students should not take this victory for granted. There is work to be done to prevent future tuition increases, even with the new policy that limits future tuition growth. A downturn in the economy could reverse the work of recent years, new laws and budgets could be adopted, and tuition could skyrocket again. We must work together to protect higher education funding and keep tuition at a reasonable level.

Plus, there are serious benefits to getting involved in the legislative process in terms of your own civic education. The experiences you’ll have and the relationships you’ll make by spending time as an advocate in Olympia will be tremendously rewarding.

You can start by reaching out to your home legislator to share your story of why higher education—and affordable tuition—makes a difference to you. Find your legislator’s contact information at www.leg.wa.gov. Send an email, make a phone call, or schedule a time for coffee in your home community or on campus.

Lower tuition will be a huge relief to thousands of Washington students and families. Let’s continue the movement for affordable tuition for this generation of college students—and for the next generation.

Hans Zeiger (R-Puyallup) is the ranking member on the House Higher Education Committee. He can be contacted at www.leg.wa.gov.The opinions expressed in this op-ed are not necessarily those of the staff of The Daily Evergreen or those of the Office of Student Media.