UW tuition and fees could top $34K by 2019 — unless WA legislators start restoring cuts and getting creative

It’s simple arithmetic. The total cost of educating a student hasn’t changed much in the past 20+ years. But state legislators have cut funding for our public colleges and universities, so tuition keeps going up.

A recent state analysis says tuition at the University of Washington could hit $20,249 by 2019. But that may be too low: The U.S Department of Education estimates tuition and fees will reach $34,647 by then – not including room and board or books.

The greatest single factor driving tuition increases is cuts to state higher education funding. Nothing else comes close. State support made up 59% of the UW’s education budget in 2008, but dropped to 29% percent for the 2012 school year, according to Margaret Shepherd, the UW’s director of state relations.

It’s a similar story at Washington’s other colleges and universities. For example, 2012-13 tuition at Washington State University is 256% higher than it was in 1989-90 ($3,194 vs. $11,386), while the total cost to educate a student increased just 10% over the same time period.

What accounts for such huge increases in tuition, when the cost of educating a student is relatively stable? It’s simple. In 1990, the state covered 80% of the cost of educating a WSU student. By 2012, legislators had whittled that down to just 46%.

Tuition at Western State University keeps rising, because Washington's legislators keep cutting funding.

Tuition at Western State University keeps rising, because Washington’s legislators keep cutting funding. (Data from the State of Working Washington.)

Fixing this problem is straightforward, even if it isn’t easy.

First, Washington’s legislators need to find a sustainable funding source for higher education, sufficient for the state to cover at least 50% of the total cost of educating a student. It’s the least they could do, considering so many of them were able to afford college thanks to high levels of state support when they were in school.

Second, we need to find a better way for students and their families to pay for their portion of college – something that removes the up-front barriers to attending college and doesn’t saddle promising students with massive debt. EOI is working to advance one such proposal, called Pay It Forward.

Under Pay It Forward, students pay no upfront tuition fees to attend college. Instead, they pay a small percentage of their adjusted gross income (AGI) for a number of years after graduating: 0.75% per year of community college, or 1% per year of university, for 25 years. Payments are placed in a trust fund that covers the cost for future students to receive the same opportunity to attend college with no tuition fees (hence the name).

There is a way out. Right now, the missing ingredient in Olympia is leadership on the issue, and advocacy for working families and their students, who are being priced out of the market for a college degree. We need real leadership in the 2013 legislative session to yield progress on that front.

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