WSU Tri-Cities, Columbia Basin College will avoid tuition increases

Tuition at Washington State University Tri-Cities and Columbia Basin College will not increase this next school year thanks to a much delayed but generous state budget.

Higher education in Washington will receive tens of millions of dollars more in the next biennium compared with the last two years in the budget approved Friday by state lawmakers. That additional money will reverse a trend of declining state investment in higher education and mark the first time in decades that there is no annual tuition increase, officials said.

"It's the best budget we've seen this year," Chris Mulick, WSU's director of state relations in Olympia, told the Herald. "It sends a great message to students."

While students will get a break from routine tuition increases, staff at CBC and other community colleges will see the restoration of pay cuts totaling about $411,000 each year.

"I think it's a promising beginning. It's the right direction," said CBC President Rich Cummins.

Mulick said this will be the first time since 1986 WSU hasn't raised tuition. Cummins said CBC's computer records only go back to 1989 and there's been a tuition increase each year since then.

The Legislature was under the wire to finish a budget with the fiscal year ending in just a few days. Lawmakers were also under pressure to better fund K-12 education because of an order from the Washington State Supreme Court, commonly known as the McCleary decision.

While primary and secondary education will get a $1 billion boost in the state's $33.6 billion budget, higher education came out a big winner. The state's four-year colleges and universities and community colleges will receive $3.1 billion -- a 12 percent increase.

School officials said not only will tuition rates be frozen, the state will increase funding for college and university operating costs affected by inflation, something usually covered by tuition increases.

"Moving into the biennium with absolutely no increase in student tuition -- and just as importantly, replacing the revenue an increase would have generated with state dollars -- marks a renewed commitment to keeping higher education affordable and accessible," WSU President Elson Floyd said in a release.

Floyd and WSU's Board of Regents had earlier promised to limit a tuition increase to 2 percent, below the average 7 percent annual increase seen in recent years. The board meets Monday to rescind that increase in light of the state's budget.

Resident undergraduates at WSU paid $11,386 in annual tuition and fees for the 2012-13 school year, an 81 percent increase from $6,290 in the 2007-08 academic year.

At CBC, the estimated cost of tuition and fees for three quarters is $4,350 for a student taking 15 credit hours per quarter this past school year.

The state's community colleges will receive an additional $53 million in the next school year compared to last -- about a 9 percent budget increase. That will cover various special programs around the state, as well as restoring the furloughs handed down to staff last year.

"What it means is the individuals who work here will have their full salary restored," Cummins said. "That's a big deal."

The state budget also will provide for a number of programs and projects at WSU, such as increased support and development of medical education programs at the Spokane campus, expansion of the university's offerings in Everett and $5.7 million to build up efforts to turn out more engineering and computer science graduates.

School officials said they can't pinpoint a specific reason for the state's decision to provide such a complete budget to higher education but avoiding future budget shortfalls from economic downturns could have been a factor.

"I think our state leaders see the connection between education and economic development," Cummins said.