Comprehensive legislation addressing higher education tuition, financial aid and system accountability and transparency quickly passed the House and Senate this week and is on its way to the Governor.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act, or E2SHB 1795, passed on a 79-17 vote in the House on Monday and by a 32-13 Senate vote on Tuesday.
Goals of the Act to be accomplished by 2018 include: increasing the number of bachelor’s degrees produced by 27 percent over 2009-10 levels; adding at least 2,000 degrees in various science, engineering, health, mathematics and related fields; ensuring that at least 19 percent of awarded degrees are earned by students who are low income or the first in their families to attend college.
“There’s no joy and no victory in rising tuition,” Rep. Reuven Carlyle of Seattle, the bill’s prime sponsor said on the House floor Monday. “The question is, can we embark on this policy with some thoughtfulness and some respect and recognition that we have to re-invest dollars in access, affordability and quality, and we have to do it in a very thoughtful way.”
The differences that exist among the state’s public higher education institutions mean that a “one-size fits all regulated model from Olympia is simply unsustainable,” Carlyle said.
In that regard, the bill gives the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges authority to institute differential tuition models for the 34 institutions under its authority. And each of the state’s six public baccalaureate institutions will be allowed to set its own tuition rates starting in the 2011-12 academic year and continuing through the 2014-15 academic year. Between the 2015-16 and the 2018-19 academic years, resident undergraduate tuition and enrollment requirements would be determined in part by whether state operating support during those years is above, at or below the appropriation level set in 2011.
Depending upon the appropriation level in each of those years, institutions would be authorized or required to adjust resident undergraduate tuition up or down, and maintain or reduce enrollments. If tuition increases are authorized, they could not exceed the 60th percentile of resident undergraduate tuition at similar public institutions in the Global Challenge States (GCS). Those are states identified by the Progressive Policy Institute as performing well in the global economy.
On Monday, Rep. Glenn Anderson of Fall City praised Carlyle for his efforts on the bill which, he said, set a new standard of “collaborative legislative policy making.” Nevertheless, Anderson said he would vote against the bill—partly because it links Washington tuition levels to those in the GCS, and partly because he believes there has not been a strong enough case made that the tuition changes are justified.
“When people take the initiative to better their lives and struggle, and we ask them to do that for the benefit of us all because we’re better people for it, and we throw a rock on their backs, I can’t go there,” Anderson said.
The bill states that tuition increases are necessary because of “a profound structural shift” away from state support, but it also finds “there is little transparency regarding whether increasing tuition dollars gives students, their families, and Washington taxpayers a high-value return on investment.”
The bill requires institutions to provide resident undergraduate students with information on sources of all institutional revenue received during the prior academic or fiscal year, and the uses of tuition revenue by program category.
One of the bill’s stated intents is to establish a “clear nexus” between tuition dollars and improved institutional productivity and accountability. Beginning in September 2011 and every two years thereafter, each public four-year institution will negotiate an institutional performance plan with the Office of Financial Management that includes expected performance outcomes to be achieved in the next biennium.
An earlier version of the legislation would have withdrawn unlimited tuition-setting authority for any institution that failed to achieve the performance outcomes, but that provision was struck from the final version.
Outcomes addressed in each performance plan are to include time and credits to degree, retention and success of students from low-income, diverse or underrepresented communities, baccalaureate degree production for resident students and degree production in high-employer demand and critical state need areas.
The legislation also requires public baccalaureate institutions to annually report performance statistics that can be compared within Washington and elsewhere across the country. The data is to include such measures as bachelor’s degrees awarded, graduation rates, transfer rates, remedial-education enrollments, and student debt load.
To maintain some degree of affordability for low- and middle-income students in the face of what are likely to be significant tuition increases, the bill requires public four-year institutions to provide aid to low- and middle-income students via a specific formula if institutions raise tuition beyond levels assumed in the operating budget. Financial assistance can be provided in various ways, including tuition revenue, locally held funds, tuition waivers, or local financial aid programs.
To provide additional money for financial assistance, the four-year institutions that increase tuition above levels assumed in the operating budget will be required to set aside up to 5 percent of the operating fees they collect from students. Currently, the institutions are required to set aside 3.5 percent of operating fees for financial aid.
Public baccalaureate institutions that raise tuition above levels assumed in the operating budget will have to report to the Legislature on methods of providing financial assistance and on tuition-increase impacts, such as debt burden. They will have devise plans to mitigate negative effects on the student population.
Under the bill, the HECB will be required to consult with other higher education entities to develop State Need Grant award criteria focused on level of need rather than on a “first-come, first served basis.”
The bill also establishes a priority for institutions to inform students about the benefits the American Opportunity Tax credit and similar provisions offer to students.
E2SHB 1795 includes various provisions intended to reduce the number of completed college-level courses that are not credited when a student transfers to another institution. For example, it clarifies the status of students who earn certain associate of arts or science degrees at community or technical colleges and then transfer to four-year institutions.
The legislation establishes a new goal of increasing the number of students who receive academic credit for prior learning. The HECB is required to establish a work group consisting of representatives from the HECB, other higher education entities, and business and labor to work on ways to expand opportunities for students to receive prior learning credit.
In response to recent concerns that some highly qualified Washington students have been denied admission to the University of Washington while out-of-state students who pay higher tuition have been admitted, the legislation requires the UW to maintain resident freshman undergraduate enrollments at least at the 2009-10 level.
E2SHB 1795 also permits institutions to charge Running Start students a fee of up to 10 percent of tuition and fees, but also requires institutions to encourage low-income students to take advantage of available fee waivers.