Over the past five years, tuition at Washington’s four-year universities has increased 34%, and that’s adjusting for inflation. With a national average increase of 17%, Washington has fallen behind, and students are paying the price (literally). But wait! As college students across the state return to campus, they are being greeted by lower tuition bills thanks to Republican lawmakers, or at least that is the story most people are hearing. In-state tuition will be lower, but the Higher Education Caucus wants to make sure that you know all the facts about how this happened, why it’s not perfectly ideal, and why Republicans don’t deserve all the credit.
When Republican senate leadership initially proposed these tuition cuts, Democrats opposed them, opting instead to push for a funded tuition freeze. The key difference is funding. The Democratic proposal would freeze tuition at current rates, but it wouldn’t reduce university funding. The state would just cover more of the costs of a college education. The Republican plan would have forced schools to lower tuition, but it lacked state funding to make up for the revenue that universities would lose. This would act as a cut to higher education funding. It could mean that it would be harder to get into that public speaking class you’ve been waiting on for so long, or that less course offerings would delay your graduation. It could lead to bigger class sizes, over-worked teaching assistants, and a lower quality of education. Overall, it would not be a win for Washington students.
Luckily, Democrats saved the day. Our Democratic legislators pushed for a compromise which would fund the proposed tuition cuts by closing tax loopholes that benefited the wealthy. Closing the tax loopholes, along with better-than-expected revenue projections, allowed us to cut tuition without sacrificing the quality of your education. This kept our budget balanced and our universities fully funded so that Washington students can continue to enjoy a world class college education.
However, the cuts are still not all good news, as they will not help more students afford the costs of college. While closing tax loopholes covered much of the tuition cuts, Republicans also paid for the plan by cutting the State Need Grant, which helps students all across the state afford a college education. Cutting financial aid should not be the answer to high tuition. The Republican model makes it cheaper for middle class and wealthy families to afford sending their children to college, but it does not make college more accessible for those who cannot already afford it. It does not help more students, from more diverse backgrounds, attend college. It does nothing for the 33,000 students who are eligible for the State Need Grant, but who go without aid due to a lack of funding.
Even with this information, many will see the tuition cut as a win. After bearing the burden of years of skyrocketing costs, the fact that that tuition is now heading downward is cause for celebration. But we must remember that the fight for college affordability in Washington is far from over, and this step is not a long-term solution. While tuition will fall during this two-year budget cycle, it will rise with median income after that. In two years, tuition at the University of Washington in Seattle (for example) will be $9,183 per year, and while that is better than it is today, it is still not low enough. College is still not affordable.
So, as you return to the college routine of lectures and homework, keep in mind that this struggle is not over, this deal is not perfect, and no, Republicans did not win the higher education battle.
Written by Noah An of the Higher Education Caucus.