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Originally published December 11, 2012 at 6:36 PM | Page modified December 12, 2012 at 12:37 PM

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Panel leaning toward repeal of differential tuition

A state law that allows colleges and universities to charge different tuition prices for different majors could be repealed next year.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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A legislative committee that is re-examining a law that would let colleges and universities charge more for certain high-demand degrees is leaning toward recommending that the measure be repealed.

Although the committee didn't come to a recommendation when it met Tuesday, four members said they favor taking away the right to charge different tuition rates for different majors because it could have financial consequences for the state's prepaid college-tuition program.

Differential tuition was approved by the 2011 Legislature but suspended the following year because of concerns about its impact on the state's Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program. That program pays account-holders based on the highest tuition charged by a state institution to in-state undergraduates. It already is underfunded by about $600 million, or 79 percent.

A higher tuition for some programs could push GET's per-unit payout to a higher amount — although legislative staffers said they thought they had found a way around that dilemma.

Still, four legislators said they would favor repealing differential tuition, at least for the time being. Two legislators said they were concerned that higher tuition rates for high-demand courses might discourage students from majoring in those subjects.

"If we want to get people into STEM degrees, isn't increasing the price on STEM degrees going to do the opposite of what we say we want to do?" asked Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. Engineering, in particular, is one of the programs that most likely would see an increase under differential tuition.

The eight-member committee must make a recommendation to the Legislature by Jan. 14, when the session begins. Only six members attended Tuesday's meeting; Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, who chairs the committee, said he would discuss the issue by phone with Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, and Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, to try to reach a consensus.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.

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