While the K-12 budget, for which the state is being held in contempt and fined $100,000/day by the State Supreme Court, has garnered the biggest headlines, the Governor Inslee’s signing tuition cuts into law may become the most trendsetting. SB 5954 cuts community college tuition by 5% and state college and university tuition by 5% this fall and another 10-15% next fall while increasing the state’s investment in higher education. After 2016-17 academic year, tuition may be increased by no more than the average rate of growth of the median hourly wage.
This move responds to a growing call nationwide for college affordability and is being heralded by educators and students and their families in Washington State. However, given that the state ranks third highest in tuition hikes since the recession (approx. 34% increase), these cuts only somewhat roll back the costs to attend college in Washington State.
Amidst the celebration are concerns about the long-term sustainability of such cuts and whether the state legislature will continue to make up the difference in lost tuition revenue after 2016. If the state’s higher education funding is inadequate, cuts that reduce access to or quality of education often follow, as was evidenced in the most recent recession–elimination of programs, increased class sizes, reduced course sections, cuts in faculty and staff (especially full-time), and enrollment cuts. In these circumstances, developmental course work and educational support services are often particularly at risk.
Washington may prove a leader in college affordability and state reinvestment in higher education; it’s definitely a state to watch to see how these bold actions play out over the next biennium.