Thursday, February 10, 2011

Work under way on revisions to higher education opportunity legislation

Most who testified at a public hearing Wednesday on Rep. Reuven Carlyle’s proposed Higher Education Opportunity Act agreed it represented a good start at addressing higher education funding needs during the current state fiscal crisis. 
The Act, HB 1795, would give the governing boards of the public baccalaureate institutions authority to set tuition levels for all students during the next three academic years.  However, it also would require them to set aside additional tuition revenue to support financial aid programs if those tuition increases exceed 7 percent per year.
The legislation states that Washington is experiencing a “profound structural shift in the funding of higher education.” State support has declined dramatically over the past 20 years, necessitating tuition increases to supplant the support of higher education from general taxpayers.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act does not specify a limit on the tuition increases for the three-year period. Currently, state law limits tuition increases for resident undergraduates to 7 percent per year at public baccalaureates, although the Legislature authorized 14 percent increases in each of the past two years.
Under the bill, the SBCTC would be authorized raise tuition to levels specified in the 2011-13 omnibus appropriations act. If the SBCTC does not raise tuition to these levels, the bill grants the boards of the 34 community and technical colleges the option of increasing tuition to the level specified in the budget act.
Rep. Carlyle, of Seattle, said a substitute bill is in the works incorporating changes suggested by stakeholders and fellow legislators.
Currently, public baccalaureates whose boards decide to increase tuition above 7 percent would be required to set aside half the tuition revenue above 7 percent to support financial aid programs for low- and middle-income students. Students with incomes up to 125 percent of median family income (MFI) would be eligible to use the money to help offset the impact of the tuition increases.  Students eligible for the State Need Grant program must have an income no more than 70 percent of MFI, which is $54,500 for a family of four.
The bill has a strong accountability provision. It would require the HECB to develop, monitor and report on progress achieved by the baccalaureate institutions on specific performance measures such as bachelor’s degrees awarded, graduation rates, transfer rates, time and credits to degree, retention rates, and course completion. It also would require institutions to develop specific action plans to achieve the goals, and to report biennially to the Governor, Legislature and HECB.
Finally, HB 1795 would direct the Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) Committee to evaluate the impact of tuition increases on the college savings program, and to report back to the Legislature later this year on whether a “second phase” of the program might be appropriate.
During Wednesday’s hearing before the House Higher Education Committee, HECB Executive Director Don Bennett joined institution representatives, students and others in generally supporting the bill, while agreeing that more work still needs to be done.
HB 1795 is one of several higher education funding measures before the Legislature. Governor Gregoire’s 2011-13 budget proposal would permit resident undergraduate tuition increases ranging from 9 to 11 percent annually and would make even larger cuts in state General Fund support for higher education. 
Another proposal included in HB 1666 and SB 5717 would implement the recommendations of the Governor’s Higher Education Funding Task Force. It would provide additional tuition flexibility for four-year institutions but would limit tuition to the 60th percentile of tuition at similar institutions in the Global Challenge States with which Washington is often compared. The legislation also would set new degree production targets for the institutions.

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