WA Budget Roundup: Higher education gets a much-needed boost with tuition cuts

Let’s start with the good news

The Washington State Legislature just passed a historic budget that’s already making national headlines for cutting tuition at all of our state’s public institutions for the first time in decades.

Late Tuesday night, the Governor signed a compromise budget proposal which includes tuition decreases over two years of 15% at the research universities; 20% at the regional universities; and 5% at community and technical colleges. This reverses a decades-long trend of tuition increases year after year, with only limited relief in some years from tuition freezes.

Washington Tuition at Public Colleges and Universities (1998-2017)

There were four major moving pieces at play in the higher education budget negotiations:

  • tuition levels, which have risen steadily over the last three decades, and steeply since the recession;
  • the State Need Grant (SNG), the state’s largest financial aid program for low-income students, which under current funding, serves only about 70% of the over 100,000 eligible students;
  • the College Bound Scholarship (CBS), a need- and merit-based financial aid program offered to low-income students in middle school; and
  • the Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS), a scholarship for low- and middle-income students to promote graduation in STEM and healthcare fields, state funding for which is matched by private donations of up to $50 million per year.

The final budget provides $113 million for tuition cuts and $41 million for the Opportunity Scholarship, with no increases for the State Need Grant or College Bound Scholarship. The two sides also battled over higher ed compensation increases, ultimately settling on a $110 million expenditure for that purpose.

The not-so-good news

The House originally proposed tuition freezes, in lieu of tuition cuts, in order to free up more money for the State Need Grant, but Senate budget negotiators won that battle – in the end actually succeeding in decreasing funding for financial aid, commensurate with lower tuition levels. Decreasing tuition is a good first step toward expanding access to college – and that’s the goal – but the importance of financial aid to low-income students can’t be overstated, and it will have to be addressed in future budgets.

Cross-posted from Pay It Forward »

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