SEATTLE (AP) - Higher education budgets are getting their first increase from the Washington general fund since 2009, and with that boost, comes a mandated one-year tuition freeze that provides a welcome break for those paying for college.
School officials say the moves came just in time. Tuition rates have nearly doubled over the past four years to help make up for a series of state budget cuts. Further increases, administrators feared, would prevent some students from enrolling.
"I don't know that I can say unequivocally that we've crossed a tipping point. But I know that whatever that line is, we're much closer than we'd like to be," said Chris Mullick, director of state relations at Washington State University.
The state budget for the next two years provides a 14 percent increase for state colleges and universities along with preventing price hikes for one year for resident undergraduates at every state school, including Washington's 34 community and technical colleges.
Lawmakers had cut the higher education budget by $1 billion between 2009 and 2013. The next two-year cycle will provide $2.4 billion for colleges and universities from the state general fund, up from the previous $2.1 billion allocation. Observers note, however, this is still far below the $3.1 billion schools received before lawmakers started tightening belts during the recession.
Still, education officials will take what they can get.
"The money is a great shot in the arm," said Randy Hodgins, a University of Washington vice president. "We're incredibly pleased."
Some schools will give professors their first raises in years. And the budget earmarked $18 million for engineering and computer science programs at UW, WSU and Western Washington University.
The boost will allow UW to expand enrollment in these areas by more than 20 percent after years of turning away hundreds of qualified applicants, officials said.
Schools will have the option of raising tuition in fall 2014 as long as they set aside extra money for financial aid, according to budget provisions. Lawmakers made the freeze mandatory for only one year to give administrators flexibility.
But the University of Washington Board of Regents decided to freeze tuition for two years at Washington's most expensive state school.
"This provides a nice couple of years to sort of adjust to this new higher tuition level," Hodgins said. "What we will do in the future, who knows? Hopefully those future increases can be relatively modest."
Other schools are reluctant to announce tuition plans beyond this year. They say that without further increases from the Legislature, the increases could begin again, though likely at a slower pace.
The Washington state economy has started to improve, and because of that university officials expect to see some stability in the state budget and potentially more dollars for higher education, Hodgins and others said.
Eastern Washington University President Rodolfo Arevalo is taking a cautious approach to his budget now and in the near future.
"While I can fund the first year, it's going to be hard," said Eastern Washington University President Rodolfo Arevalo. He went on to say that he'll need another increase to avoid raising tuition in the second year of the budget cycle.
"While the increase the Legislature made is positive for this year, the total two-year budget is not sufficient to maintain the university at the level we were hoping would happen," Arevalo said.
WSU's Mullick said it feels like the state and the university may be entering a period of greater stability.
"We're probably in pretty decent shape moving forward," he said.
Smaller schools without big endowments can't afford such confidence. Avoiding tuition increases is a high priority for Arevalo and his colleagues.
"Raising tuition eventually gets to a breaking point, when parents look at their kids and say they'd love to send them to college, but is it worth the expense to your family and your future debt?" Arevalo said. "That's when families start looking at other options."
Contact Donna Blankinship at https://twitter.com/dgblankinship
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