OLYMPIA, Wash. - The new school year is underway in Washington, and four-year university students are paying 16 percent more than last academic year for tuition and fees, compared to a national average hike of just over eight percent. State budget cuts are to blame for much of the increase, as well as competing priorities for fewer education dollars.
State Representative Chris Reykdal (D-Dist. 22) of Tumwater, on the House Education Committee, says the next year will bring more tough choices for lawmakers.
"We have a new, I would say priority, about early learning, based on a ton of research. We have a constitutional obligation for K-12, and the court's just affirmed that we are way behind the ball on that. And then, you know, you've got to put higher ed on the continuum here."
The state was able to help 4,000 more undergraduate students last year than in the previous academic year, but in the past three school years, the number of people applying for need-based aid is up 64 percent.
The legislature now requires four-year schools to set aside at least four percent of their operating fees for student financial aid. Rep. Reykdal says it still isn't enough to meet the need.
"We think we're now at about 30,000 students eligible for a State Need Grant, but who are not receiving aid because we do not have it fully funded. They have applied; they've been told that they are aid-eligible, but there is not enough resource."
Reykdal says education will be the legislature's top priority when it convenes again mid-January. And for higher ed, he adds, one challenge will be how to allocate the money it receives.
"I think the commitment will be there. The question is, do we just give the institutions direct resource and keep their tuition growth low? Or do we continue to let tuition escalate, and then pile our state dollars into financial aid for low-income. That'll be the big debate in the next couple years."
State lawmakers created a couple of new scholarship programs funded largely by corporations for specific kinds of degrees, but Reykdal says they also cut by half the Work Study Program, which pays students for part-time work on campus, and reduced grants to students at for-profit colleges.