Colleges wait out Legislature for tuition plan

SEATTLE — Students heading off to college in Washington state next fall will have to wait awhile to find out how much tuition they’ll be paying.

Since the Legislature was set to go home without finishing the state budget, no one is sure whether Washington students will be getting a tuition increase, a cut, or neither. All three ideas have been proposed this year.

If you go to the University of Washington or Washington State University, tuition and mandatory fees already add up to nearly $13,000 a year, so plus or minus $390 may not seem like a lot to individual students or their parents.

But students aren’t the only ones waiting for a decision from the Legislature. The state’s college and universities are also on hold.

They can’t finish putting together their budgets for next year until the Legislature finishes its work. Depending on the choices lawmakers make when they return to Olympia soon, universities are waiting to hear whether they’ll get millions more from the state this year and next.

Officials at all Washington’s public colleges and universities will likely have to wait a few weeks or even a few months longer before they can set tuition for next year.

For the most part, college officials say they’re not chewing their fingernails over the delay.

“It’s not that unusual in the first year of a biennium,” said Todd Sprague, spokesman for The Evergreen State College.

Although trustees of the Olympia college usually make their tuition decision in June, they also have a July meeting scheduled and can add a special meeting if they need one, Sprague said.

“We wouldn’t do anything without getting direction from the Legislature,” he said.

Until then, curious students and parents can get an estimate of next year’s tuition bill on the school’s website, where administrators have used a 5 percent increase to help estimate costs this fall. Sprague emphasized that number is just an example, not a guess.

The college has raised tuition about 14 percent during each of the past four years, under the guidance of the Legislature.

State government support for higher education has been cut about in half over the past decade. Before the legislative session began in January, a group of college presidents said they would agree to freeze tuition if lawmakers pumped $225 million back into Washington’s higher education system.

This year, the three primary budget proposals before the Legislature estimate tuition will go up 3 percent in the fall, go down 3 percent or stay the same. Lawmakers will likely return to Olympia later this spring or summer for a special session to finish the state budget and set tuition for the next two years.

The Legislature gave the state’s four-year schools tuition-setting authority in 2011. Double-digit tuition increases have nearly doubled tuition at Washington schools over the past five years. While the schools now have the authority to set their tuition as high as they want, most have continued to defer to the Legislature, which has put double-digit tuition increases into recent state budgets.

Central Washington University may use that flexibility to start to build back up its own budget over the next two years, said college spokeswoman Linda Schactler.

CWU officials were expecting the Legislature to authorize a modest tuition gain of up to 5 percent and were looking at the possibility of raising tuition by an additional 3 to 7 percent depending on how much money the state allocates for the university, she said.

“We’re really looking for some opportunity to start to gain ground again,” Schactler said.

UW is planning to set its tuition where the state Legislature decides and the university’s staff is doing some budget modeling based on all the proposals in Olympia, said UW spokesman Norm Arkans.

Although the UW regents usually set tuition in June, in other years they haven’t finished their budget until July. Arkans said they need more clarity from Olympia before they can move forward.

Western Washington University also is in wait-and-see mode, said spokesman Paul Cocke, but WSU is on its own tuition path this spring.

Washington State University President Elson Floyd has promised tuition won’t go up any more than 2 percent this fall. If the Legislature creates a budget based on less than a 2 percent increase, WSU will follow their lead, said Colleen Kerr, WSU assistant vice president for external affairs and chief legislative officer.

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