New law cutting higher-ed tuition ‘huge deal for students’

Everett Community College student leader Azrael Howell couldn’t believe state lawmakers this year did something they’ve never done before — reduce tuition.

“I was completely shocked,” said Howell, who is student body president. “I knew we had been waiting on the budget. I knew it was one of the big topics. I was really excited.”

He’s not the only one.

“This is a huge deal for students,” Lia Andrews, president of the student executive board at Edmonds Community College, wrote in an email. “Even for the students who qualify for financial aid, debts from student loans are exorbitant in America. The concern over whether one can even pay for college is a big incentive not to attend college.”

A new law cuts tuition 5 percent starting in the fall quarter for resident students attending Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges. Tuition will be frozen the following year.

For a full-time student carrying 15 credits that works out to about $50 a quarter.

“That will be enough to cover books for some students,” said Howell, 38, a pre-med student and coordinator of the school’s student mentoring program.

The effect of lawmakers’ action extends beyond the savings, said Andrews, 22, a second-year student who plans to transfer to the University of Washington to study environmental science.

“It may not seem like much, but this bodes well not only for the state, but for the nation,” she said. “This is a very historic decision, and I am eager to see how the rest of the nation reacts to it.”

Students enrolled at four-year universities will enjoy a larger reduction in the next two school years. The law calls for a drop of 15 percent at the UW and Washington State University and 20 percent at the three regional universities and The Evergreen State College.

The budget provides colleges and universities with enough money to backfill lost tuition revenue.

After 2016, tuition could climb at all two- and four-year colleges. But it can’t go up more than the annual average percentage growth in the median hourly wage for Washington for the previous 14 years. Today, that calculation would be 2.1 percent, according to an analysis prepared for lawmakers.

Even so, the price of college has been significantly reset, said the leader of the Senate Republican Caucus which championed the change.

“Today’s college students will leave college with lower tuition than when they started,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “That’s just unthinkable when just a few short years ago we were worried about how much it would grow.”

Edmonds Community College President Jean Hernandez said she’s never seen the price of college drop in her 35 years in higher education.

“I think it is huge, it is monumental,” she said. “A couple hundred bucks a year for students can make quite a difference.”

She and Everett Community College President David Beyer said they hope it portends a new era of increased state spending in higher education following years of recession-driven cuts.

Making college more affordable and accessible is critically important but the loss of those dollars has made it hard to ensure students are offered the programs they want and need, EvCC President David Beyer said.

“In the bigger picture, are we now going to be re-investing in higher education because for so long we have been disinvesting,” he said.

For a period, it didn’t look like community college students would see tuition reduced.

Initially, Republican lawmakers proposed to freeze tuition at the two-year schools while slashing it 25 percent at public four-year universities. It wasn’t until the crafting of the final budget deal in late June that lawmakers agreed to extend the savings to the two-year schools.

Marty Brown, executive director of the state Board of Community and Technical Colleges, said he kept asking lawmakers to include the system as a matter of fairness.

“All in all it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “I thought it was a big deal when they froze (tuition) in the last budget. We’d have been perfectly satisfied with a freeze but (the cut) is a plus for our students.”

Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, chairwoman of the Senate Higher Education Committee, lauded the final result.

“I am totally excited about lowering tuition across the board,” she said. “It’s always been my goal to make college as affordable as possible.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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