Tiered tuition backed in Washington; GET would go

January 20, 2013 - Updated: 6:10 a.m.

College students in Washington could be charged higher tuition for degrees that typically result in higher-paying jobs, starting next fall.

That’s the recommendation of two legislative committees that analyzed the state’s tuition system.

The concept is called differential tuition. If approved, Washington would join nearly a third of the nation’s public colleges and universities, which charge more for select undergraduate degrees such as engineering, business or nursing.

This is the second time the idea has been floated in Olympia.

Colleges had the authority in 2011 to charge students varying amounts of tuition. That authority was repealed in 2012 due to concerns over the state’s prepaid tuition program, Guaranteed Education Tuition, which basically guarantees a person’s investment will increase along with college tuition. As of June 30, GET had an unfunded liability of $630 million.

Two legislative committees evaluating those issues recommended last week to close the GET program while still honoring existing beneficiaries. They also recommend allowing differential tuition authority for the state’s public universities, with the exception of the University of Washington. The amount GET guarantees to investors is based on UW’s tuition because it’s the highest-priced public university.

Rep. Hans Zeiger, a Puyallup Republican, disagrees with that conclusion and is co-sponsoring a bill to reject differential tuition.

“Differential tuition is not the best idea for the future. We need to increase the production of degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and I don’t believe differential tuition will accomplish that,” said Zeiger, a member of the House Higher Education Committee.

The bill is expected to be before the Legislature by the end of the month.

Although the concept is new to Washington, colleges and universities around the country have for several years charged higher tuition for subjects such as applied physics or aerospace engineering. The tiered pricing has been slowly creeping into the Northwest, according to a study by the Cornell Higher Education Research Institute. Oregon State University and the University of Oregon are the most recent to pilot the concept.

The rationale for higher tuition in selected programs is that some degrees require more expensive equipment and smaller class sizes. Additionally, the degrees are in fields for which job demand is high.

With years of cuts to higher education, charging more for select degrees has become more popular, according to news reports.

Zeiger thinks the concept is the opposite of where Washington should be headed: “The state needs to be investing more in higher education,” he said. “We’ve been disinvesting in education for several years, and that needs to stop.”

Joan King, WSU associate vice president and chief university budget officer, said differential tuition is among several ideas that will be considered by a university tuition committee.

“It’s an interesting concept,” she said. “Shouldn’t we charge more for degrees that cost more? How would we address differential tuition? What do we do if someone changes their major? From a budget perspective, how do I project how much money we would have if there was differential tuition? Should we charge less to the students who have less ability to make money when they graduate? We are just beginning to crack the shell of that nut, so to speak.”

She added, “We are also trying to figure out ways to keep WSU affordable.”

Eastern Washington University is not considering differential tuition at this point.

University President Rodolfo Arévalo would rather focus on the state’s investment, said David Buri, EWU’s director of government relations.

Right now, students are picking up 70 percent of the cost while the state is paying about 30 percent, college officials said. That’s opposite the split before the recession, and college presidents around the state are asking lawmakers to restore at least a 50/50 relationship.

“Dr. Arévalo’s heart is trying to keep tuition as low as possible,” Buri said. “We are really concerned about access.”


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