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Originally published June 28, 2013 at 9:10 PM | Page modified June 28, 2013 at 10:24 PM

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‘Step forward’: College tuition frozen for at least a year

Reversing several years of steady budget cutbacks, the Legislature voted Friday to increase funding for higher education and freeze tuition for at least a year.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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After four straight years of bad news, Washington’s colleges and universities got a much-needed lift on Friday when the Legislature boosted higher-education funding and froze tuition rates.

Higher-education funding went up by 12 percent — with $119 million in funding for core academic operations, plus $18 million to expand computer-science and engineering programs at three universities.

The new state budget, expected to be signed over the weekend by Gov. Jay Inslee, also freezes tuition at today’s rate for at least one year for in-state undergraduate students.

It’s a significant step forward, said University of Washington President Michael Young in a statement. He said the budget agreement “will allow the UW to hold resident undergraduate tuition rates at their current levels without compromising the extraordinary quality of students’ educations.”

Washington State University President Elson Floyd also had praise for the agreement, saying the Legislature “has turned an important corner toward reinvesting in higher education.”

“By far, the most encouraging part is the recognition that we cannot continue to fund higher education on the backs of our students,” Floyd said. WSU Regents will hold a special meeting Monday to rescind a previously approved 2 percent tuition increase.

Most college students are back home for the summer, and word traveled slowly that tuition would remain the same next year.

“I think a lot of students are still waiting to hear it finalized — it rings as a little bit too good to be true,” said student Michael Kutz, president of the Associated Students of the UW.

Some legislators were swayed by a recommendation that UW students made to raise their own tuition by 3 percent if state funding did not increase, said Margaret Shepherd, director of state relations for the UW. Students wanted the money to go to faculty salaries, which have been frozen for five years.

That proposal “became part of the conversation down in Olympia,” Shepherd said.

For several years, college students from across Washington’s campuses have been putting pressure on lawmakers, trying to convince them that they were being hurt by the increases.

“The initial response has almost been shock and amazement that the legislative process really did listen to students,” Kutz said.

Performance funding

The budget proposal also freezes tuition at the state’s 34 community and technical colleges, and gives those schools a $10 million bump for performance funding, rewarding schools that are doing a good job of graduating students.

“I think we did pretty well — we’re reasonably happy with everything,” said Marty Brown, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Both two- and four-year schools will have the option of raising tuition next year, but if they do so, they’ll be required to set aside some of the new tuition dollars to provide additional financial aid.

At the UW, the new money for engineering and computer science — a total of $8.9 million over two years — will help expand programs that have been turning away hundreds of qualified students in the last few years.

The money, combined with previously allocated funds, will allow the UW to increase engineering and computer-science enrollment by more than 20 percent, UW officials said.

The UW will also receive $7 million to create a Clean Energy Institute and a Center on Ocean Acidification to conduct research on energy and acidification — two key issues for Inslee. WSU will receive $6 million to expand medical programs in Spokane.

And the College Bound program, which helps pay for college for low-income students, got a $36 million boost.

Shepherd, the UW’s director of state relations, said the tide toward more higher-education funding seemed to turn as legislators became aware of how budget cuts over the economic downturn have caused tuition rates to rise.

Funding problems

The state has cut funding to colleges and universities by about 50 percent since 2009, and Washington now ranks near the bottom in funding per student among all the states.

In response to the cuts, Washington colleges and universities raised tuition by double-digit amounts for four straight years.

The unprecedented tuition increases have also caused funding problems for the state’s prepaid college-tuition program, Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET).

“In the short term, it (no tuition increase) is going to improve the health of the (GET) program,” said state actuary Matt Smith. He said whether GET improves over the long term will depend on tuition-policy decisions over the next three or four biennia.

Many other states are also starting to put more money into higher education this year, and some are also freezing tuition, after making deep cuts during the recession, said Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“It’s a recognition by state policymakers that state operating support does have a direct relationship in keeping tuition prices down,” Hurley said.

Higher-education leaders were also pleased that several controversial proposals didn’t make into the budget.

Among them: a 20 percent surcharge on international students, and a proposal to move part-time employees off state insurance and into the Affordable Care Act health-insurance exchanges. That proposal would have hit part-time community college instructors especially hard.

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

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