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Originally published Monday, January 14, 2013 at 8:02 PM

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UW grad students want fewer fee-based programs, tuition rollback

Tuition rose dramatically in some graduate-degree programs at the University of Washington after the school made the programs self-supporting.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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When she decided to become a children's librarian, Lauren Kreutzer expected to pay about $26,000 for the master's degree she'd need to get a job at a public library.

But between the time she accepted a position in the University of Washington's Information School in spring 2011 and when she started classes in the fall, the cost of the two-year degree went up by $15,000 — a 58 percent increase.

The UW had turned the master in information and library science into a program that had to pay for itself, with no state support — one of 16 graduate programs that have been switched to a fee-based model in recent years.

"A major motivation for me to attend the iSchool was the in-state tuition, which was destroyed with this increase," said the 27-year-old Kreutzer, who expects to graduate with about $62,000 in student loans to pay her graduate-school tuition and living expenses.

University officials say they have switched some programs to fee-based because of declining state support, although in other cases the change was made to streamline administrative accounting.

In most cases, the tuition increases haven't been very large, said David Szatmary, vice provost of Educational Outreach.

For the time being, the UW has put a moratorium on switching any other existing programs to fee based.

But graduate students are pressing the university to do more than that.

They want the Legislature to restore funding so the university can roll back increases in tuition. They also want better safeguards to prevent the sudden transfer of programs, and clear criteria to decide which programs become fee based.

The issue has gotten the attention of state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who believes the university should have given students more notice and applied a more rigorous set of criteria before making programs fee based.

"To discover that tuition has increased by a third is incredible, and what's sad is that it's happened to students who are seeking to do public-service work," said Pollet, vice chair of the House Higher Education Committee. Pollet, an environmental attorney, also teaches part time in the UW's School of Public Health.

Fee-based degrees

The UW is the largest producer of graduate degrees in the state, with about 13,000 students enrolled in graduate programs, and it has more fee-based graduate degrees than any other state institution.

Nearly a third of UW graduate students, or about 4,000, are enrolled in fee-based programs, according to the Graduate and Professional Student Senate (GPSS), a student-government organization. That's up significantly from 2003, when just 14 percent of graduate programs were fee- based, said Melanie Mayock, vice president of GPSS.

Szatmary said most of the UW's fee-based offerings were created to serve older students who are seeking another degree, or a certificate, to enhance their careers. Some academics say the switch to fee based is symbolic of a philosophical shift — a belief that higher education, and especially graduate degrees, benefit only the people who receive the training, and not society as a whole.

"There are no enemies here, or bad guys," said Peter House, director of the Community Oriented Public Health Practice Program at the UW. "It's just a general societal switch away from putting public money into higher education."

House, who received his master's in public health from the University of Michigan in the 1970s, said he didn't have to pay for that degree — under a federal program, it was free, because lawmakers wanted to encourage people to go into public health.

Politicians sometimes seem to view graduate school "as a luxury, not as important as undergraduate school," said Mayock, who thinks programs that are in the public interest, and whose graduates don't usually make a high wage, should remain state supported.

She'd rather see the university raise graduate tuition than switch programs into the fee-based category, because the change makes some students ineligible for tuition waivers, and can make tuition aid less valuable. Making graduate programs fee based has the effect of privatizing the programs, she said.

"If the choice is to get rid of the program or raise the tuition, just raise the tuition," she said.

Library-science degree

Most public libraries around the country require librarians to hold a master's degree.

The UW's library-science degree was switched to a fee-based program in 2011, and once Kreutzer earns hers, she expects to make $35,000 to $50,000 a year as a librarian.

But with $62,000 in graduate debt and $20,000 more in undergraduate loans, Kreutzer — who has worked numerous jobs throughout her college years and also won some scholarship money — would face monthly loan payments of more than $900.

So she plans to participate in a federal program that allows her to to base her repayments on her income level, which should cut the cost of her loan payments.

"If not, I'd be paying this off until I died," she said.

Patricia Atwater, a student in the two-year master's program for community-oriented public-health practice, also saw her tuition rise — from $12,940 a year in 2010 to $13,800 in 2011, when the program became fee based. In 2012, it rose again, to $19,500 — a 50 percent increase in two years.

"This type of shift might work well for the business school, where people are going to go make a gazillion dollars, but people in this (community-oriented health) program aren't guaranteed that kind of solid financial future," Atwater said.

She fears the higher tuition will discourage low-income students and make the program less racially diverse.

When a program is fee based, some aspects of financial aid are affected as well. Reimbursement for working as a teaching assistant pays a smaller percentage of the tuition, Szatmary said. UW employees do not receive tuition waivers for taking fee-based classes, as they do when they take state-supported classes.

Michelle Dillon, a library-science student, said she's been told she's ineligible for some state-supported scholarships. "It feels like it's adding insult to injury," she said.

A number of graduate students said they only found out their program was switching to fee based in the summer before the academic year started, after they'd turned down offers from other schools.

"It's something that's caused a lot of bitterness among my cohorts," Dillon said. "We came here expecting one thing, we got another."

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

On Twitter @katherinelong.

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