Wednesday, February 16, 2011

House committee approves bill allowing tuition hikes and renewing public funding commitment

A substitute bill that gives public baccalaureate institutions wide latitude to set tuition rates for all full-time students over the next several academic years received a favorable vote from the House Higher Education Committee on Monday.
SHB 1795, or the Higher Education Opportunity Act, passed out of committee on a 10-5 vote with a number of major changes. The changes include ones giving institutions more options for mitigating the impact of tuition increases on low- and middle-income students, and including additional data the HECB would gather to determine the level of progress made by institutions to achieve the state’s long-term higher education goals.
The revised bill includes new language reflecting the Legislature’s continuing commitment “to public funding of higher education through state appropriations that are essential for providing access, affordability and quality in higher education for all students across the state.” In recent years, the trend has been in the other direction—toward a greater reliance on tuition revenue as opposed to state appropriations.
The bill also includes a new section establishing a “baccalaureate degree innovation program,” which would provide for the distribution of award money—if any is appropriated—to institutions that make progress on goals related to increased access, affordability, and quality of degrees.
 SHB 1795 would give baccalaureate institutions authority to reduce or raise tuition for full-time students by any amount beginning in the 2011-12 academic year and continuing through the 2015-16 academic year.  Current law caps tuition increases at 7 percent annually, although the Legislature authorized baccalaureate institutions to raise tuition 14 percent in each of the past two years.
The revised bill requires four-year institutions to take steps to mitigate tuition increases above certain levels for middle class students with incomes up to 125 percent of median family income.  Financial aid resources that could be used for that purpose include:
  • Tuition revenue or locally held funds;
  • Tuition waivers for middle-income students
  • Local financial aid programs.
The original bill required institutions to set aside for financial aid half the tuition revenue generated from annual tuition increases above 7 percent.
Under the revised bill, the financial aid requirements would become effective at any of the following institutions where annual tuition increases rise above 11 percent: the University of Washington, Washington State University and Western Washington University. The requirements would be effective at these institutions if tuition rises above 9 percent annually: The Evergreen State College, Central Washington University and Eastern Washington University.
Under the bill passed by the House committee Monday, maximum tuition increases for resident undergraduates at community and technical colleges would be established in the omnibus appropriations act passed for the next biennium.
In the original bill, local community and technical colleges would have been authorized to increase tuition to the maximum amount established in the budget act if the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) did not take that step for all 34 institutions.  The revised bill removes that provision and gives the SBCTC authority to pilot or institute differential tuition models.
The revised bill also strengthens accountability provisions for public four-year institutions by requiring the HECB to gather additional data on program participation and degree completion rates in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines, including participation among students from traditionally underrepresented populations.
The bill eliminates a provision that would have required a report on the impact of tuition increases on the Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) college savings program. Instead, the substitute bill requires the state Actuary to evaluate the soundness of the program, and the GET governing body to make changes necessary to meet the program’s long-term obligations.
Another bill provision calls on the HECB to consult with the SBCTC to develop State Need Grant award criteria that are based on level of need, and not solely on “first-come, first-served.” However, institutions already do have the ability to consider level of need when making grant award decisions, and many do.  The HECB previously published a more in-depth discussion of this issue.

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