Higher tuition costs loom on the horizon for college students across the state. Rising inflation and tight budget constraints within the Washington State Legislature are leaving students at Eastern Washington University wondering exactly how much tuition is going to go up.
“The primary issue on everybody’s mind is tuition, and it’s in very bad shape,” said Mike Johnson, Eastern’s liaison to the Washington Student Lobby.
At the same time that the governor proposed a two percent cut in all non-instructional funding [maintenance, beautification, etc.] to higher education. He also proposed a bill that will allow the governing boards at colleges and universities across the state local control to raise tuition. Under the bill, the trustees and regents will have the power to raise tuition by up to 10 percent per year, with a cap of no more than 40 percent over six years, said Johnson.
“The governor raised enrollment, and the promise scholarship fund. He did not raise tuition,” said Theo Yu, budget assistant to the governor for higher education. “The governor sees local control as a tool that the universities can use to recruit and retain the best faculty and staff they can find.”Another aspect of the governor’s proposal is that since the state is not raising tuition, they will not be responsible for funding additional state need grants to compensate for higher costs to students. The responsibility for this will then fall to the colleges and universities, said Yu.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however. This last week when the governor’s localized tuition proposal went before the House and the Senate, both organizations chose to substitute their own tuition bills rather than accept the Governor’s bill.
Rep. Don Cox proposed House Bill 1743. According to a press release, the bill will still call for localized tuition control, but will mandate that tuition only be raised according to increases in the average per capita income of residents across the state.
The Senate Bill, proposed by Senator Jeanne Kohl-Wells, would allow the governing boards of various institutions to raise tuition for undergraduate students by 6.67 percent per year, over the next two years. The colleges would be able to set tuition for other categories of students as they saw fit. The bill would also require the Legislature to provide state need grants to cover the rise in tuition.
The governor’s budget cuts are spawned from a loss of revenue and an increase in expenditures caused by the institution of various initiatives, such as I-695, 722, 728, and 732, passed by Washington’s voters. I-695, the most notorious of the four, reduced state revenue by lowering the vehicle tax, and requires that any new tax proposals go before the voters before being passed.
“Historically, there are two things the legislature always does when the budget gets bad,” said Johnson. “They cut human services, and they cut higher education.”
The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) heads up programs like welfare, food stamps and public health. In a highly conservative state like Washington, these programs are not very popular and are therefore the first to have their funding cut, said Johnson.
On the other hand, Higher education is an easy target. It is not constitutionally protected like K-12 education, so the state can simply require the students to shoulder a larger part of the cost for their education, he said.
Johnson emphasized that if the Governor’s budget passes, tuition at Eastern could rise from approximately $1000 per quarter to about $1400 a quarter over the next four years, making college for many lower- and middle-income students unattainable.
Grant Forsyth is the assistant professor of Economics at EWU, and also serves on the Faculty Legislative Committee that travels to Olympia to represent faculty interests in the legislature. “Every time the state runs into budget problems, you can bet that higher education is going to get nicked.”
“It is easy to cut higher education, because number one, it is expensive, and number two, it is possible to shift the burden to students who are already paying for part of their education.”
Forsyth shadowed Johnson’s view that I-695 is a major cause of higher education’s budget problems.
“A vote for I-695 was a vote for higher tuition,” said Forsyth. “In the original I-695 legislation, one of the fees exempted from having to pass the vote was tuition.”
It used to be that the legislators raised tuition at colleges and universities and therefore were accountable to the public for justifying those actions. He said that this idea of local control over tuition takes the responsibility out of the legislature, said Johnson.
“The Governor’s office is claiming that their budget does not raise tuition,” said Johnson. “The reason they can say that is because they give the schools the power to raise tuition, and they do because they have to. Then, the legislature can say they didn’t do it.”
Johnson was concerned about the legislators putting the brunt of the responsibility for higher tuition on the shoulders of the trustees and regents at the various schools.
“Tuition is going up. That’s just a reality. If that is the way it has to be, the legislature needs to take responsibility for that, not pass the buck onto our trustees.”
Mike Ormsby, the chair of Eastern’s board of trustees has concerns regarding the governor’s bill. He is still in support of the idea of local control of tuition. He said that the governing boards at the various institutions know better what will benefit their school, than legislators in Olympia do.
“The options that are being discussed in Olympia are very disconcerting to the BOT. We have a big problem. The cost of operating the university is not going to go down and we need to find some way to fund that,” said Ormsby. “The state needs to recognize the importance of higher education and needs to dedicate a greater percentage of state funds to higher education if we are going to be a successful state.”
“We are committed to having higher education be affordable, so that students who want to attend Eastern have the option. None of us like raising tuition. That is a last resort,” said Ormsby.
He also said that Eastern’s administration is looking for options other than a tuition hike to fund the deficit in the universities budget. The BOT has asked the state for money to fund extra students resulting from Eastern’s recent period of high enrollment. This year there are 200 more students at Eastern than there is funding for. Next year that number could be higher. The BOT has also requested additional funds to increase faculty and staff salaries.
In addition to raising tuition, the trustees are also looking at limiting the number of new students who attend Eastern, and reducing expenses across campus.
“The BOT has been responsible in the past about regulating tuition and protecting access for students who wish to attend Eastern.”
Johnson said he has several short and long-term solutions to the state’s tuition problem. “One legislator told me it would take 60’s style activism to fix this. It’s that big of a problem. He basically told me ‘You need to get your campus’ students, their parents, and your professors on the steps of the capital building yelling and screaming ‘this is unacceptable.'”
He recommends that students, faculty, staff, and parents e-mail or call their legislators. “No one thinks these things matter and they are wrong. These things really, truly do matter.”
“In the short term, just to fix it for this year, the Washington Student Lobby is running a bill that keeps tuition authority in the legislature only,” said Johnson. “Our bill doesn’t stand a chance, by the way. They [the legislature] see the benefit in being able to blame someone other than themselves for tuition.”
Johnson recommended finding some sort of revenue that will go solely for funding higher education. This revenue would be similar to the lottery money used to fund K-12 education.
Sen. Paull Shin has proposed a bill that would ma
ke higher education constitutionally protected, much in the way that K-12 education is now. The dedicated revenue source would make this possible, said Johnson.
However, when the bill came before the Senate last week, Sen. Kohl-Welles pulled the bill citing that they needed time to learn more about the matter.
Under Shin’s proposal, a degree of up to four years would be constitutionally protected and although there would be a user fee of about $500 per quarter, it would be very difficult for the legislature to raise that fee.
“That would require us to go to the voters eventually. As a solution, it is quite far off,” said Johnson.
Forsyth, however, does not think a constitutionally protected higher education system is the answer. He said that constitutionally protecting higher education would merely put more financial pressure on the DSHS, a program that is already at great enough risk for loss of funding.
He said the problem ran deeper than just the higher education system.
“I see all of our problems flowing from our tax system.”
Our system, as it stands, is based mostly on sales tax, and to a smaller extent, property taxes. The solution that Forsyth proposes requires moving from a sales tax to a progressive income tax. Most states have little or no sales tax and an income tax, whereas Washington has no income tax and a high sales tax.
With an income tax system, there would be more money to go around because Washington State’s income would not be so drastically affected by recession or high inflation. With the current system, every time the state moves into recession, the public stops purchasing goods and services. Consequently, the state’s budget takes a severe hit. This effect, while still present, would be diminished greatly with an income tax based system.
The people hurt most by the progressive income tax are the wealthy. With an income tax, as your income increases, the percentage of tax you pay also increases, essentially; rich people pay more than poor people. Because the wealthy make up a larger percentage of the voter pool than the poor, Forsyth has doubts about the feasibility of such a system.
“The poor are more harmed by the sales tax than they would be with a progressive income tax,” said Forsyth. “If we really cared about poor people in this state, we would switch to an income tax system.”
“To get it done, there would have to be a lot of political will and there would have to be some politicians who are going to be willing to sacrifice their political careers to change the tax system,” he said. “There are going to be people hurt by a progressive income tax, and those people are going to be the rich.”