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Lawmakers may keep universities from varying tuition

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Jan. 29, 2013 at 11:00 am |
January 29, 2013 11:06 am
Seaquist
Rep. Larry Seaquist

State lawmakers agreed to let universities and colleges charge higher tuition to engineers, business majors and others enrolled in higher-cost programs. But that was before the implications for the state’s pre-paid tuition program came to light.

After considering a few options last year, the Legislature ended up pausing the authority it had granted for differential tuition. Now it’s considering ending that authority altogether, as a measure sponsored by Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, would do.

Even among some of the lawmakers who originally championed differential tuition, there is now bipartisan support for ending it. When the Higher Education Committee chaired by Seaquist took public testimony today on his proposal, college students backed it while universities called for regaining the authority to set varying costs.

“If differential tuition goes through, I am a broke man,” said Michael Kutz, a computer science and economics major at the University of Washington.

Kutz told lawmakers he had entered UW as a freshman unsure what major to pursue, then found his niche after forming a startup company with a group of friends making a Web application. He ended up taking some computer science classes. “Do we really want to discourage that type of academic exploration, or taking those risks by taking those classes?” he said.

But UW lobbyist Margaret Shepherd said many students are already being turned away from programs like engineering, because the school can’t afford enough faculty. It needs options as it tries to pay for those programs, said officials from universities — even those from Washington State, Western Washington and Central Washington who said their schools had no intention of implementing differential tuition right away.

“We have very real industry needs out there to increase production in certain areas,” said WSU lobbyist Chris Mulick. “This was one tool that in the future could be used to help us if we were not able to secure state support for these kinds of high cost, high demand programs.”

One problem with that tool, besides the burden on certain students, is that it threatens to increase the already large unfunded liability of the Guaranteed Education Tuition program. Pre-paid GET accounts are guaranteed to cover their owners’ tuition costs, however high tuition rises.

The temporary pause on differential tuition expires in July, but universities still might not be legally able to use it unless the Legislature acts. That’s because voters passed Tim Eyman’s most recent tax-and-fee measure, which handed all tuition-setting responsibilities back to the Legislature.

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