The state's Guaranteed Education Tuition, or GET, program, has hung in the balance over the past couple weeks as the house considered a separate issue: whether to rescind the authority they gave to state universities just two years ago to charge differential tuition. 

The bill, which prohibits charging differential tuition rates to students for different majors (for example, charging more for an engineering degree than a history degree), passed on the floor with a bipartisan vote today, 95-1 as Democrats and Republicans voted in unison.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Larry Seaquist (D-26, Gig Harbor) got a huge lift earlier this session when house appropriations committee chair Reuven Carlyle (D-36, Queen Anne), made a legislative U-turn to support the Seaquist bill by tying it to GET. (GET is a state fund that allows parents to buy tuition credits.)

Rep. Carlyle took a stand against the unintended consequences of his own legislation.

Carlyle had passed a bill in 2011 granting state universities the authority to set their own tuition (previously, the state had the sole authority to do so)—and that bill allowed  differential tuition. In effort to protect the GET (which has come under attack from the Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus in the senate this session),  Carlyle took a stand against the unintended consequences of his own legislation.

Seaquist's bill, which had four Republican co-sponsors and four Democratic co-sponsors, had a public hearing in his higher education commitee in late January. At that hearing, Carlyle acknowledged that differential tuition “is a genuine and legitimate threat to the integrity of the GET program,” which allows parents to invest in pre-paid college tuition.

Carlyle's point: If universities were allowed to charge differential tuition, it would throw off GET’s ability to prepare for what those universities anticipate tuition costs will be in the future. For a program that is already struggling with financial stability, allowing universities to charge differential tuition could have been the nail in GET's coffin.

In the house vote earlier today, both Republicans and Democrats defended the bill, including some Republicans, such as Larry Haler (R-8, Richland), who sided with the Democrats on the GET issue—an affront to the head of the MCC, Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Medina), who has proposed killing GET.

However, Rep. Matt Manweller (R-13, Ellensburg) added a different angle. He was concerned, for example, that “differential tuition might lead to differential opportunity, and urged the house to “perpetuate opportunity, not poverty.”

Manweller, Associate Professor of Political Science at Central Washington University, gave a sarcastic example that richer students would be able to become engineers, while poorer students would have to choose “less expensive majors like political science, where your only option is representing the 13th district.”

Rep. Gael Tarleton (D-36, Ballard) stuck with the Democrats' GET angle (the senate Republicans and their renegade Democratic leader Sen. Rodney Tom (D-48, Medina): "Our higher ed institutions have managed to serve more students than ever before despite persistent cuts. ... This bill ensures we are honoring our commitment to our children, our working families, and our great state. GET ensures that we get that opportunity and the right to pursue it. GET is about giving everybody a chance to secure their futures and a chance to secure our own."

Rep. Gael Tarleton

The only defense of differential tuition came in the runup to the floor vote during the House Appropriations Committee meeting on Tuesday. Margaret Shepherd, UW’s Director of State Relations, agreed that differential tuition poses a threat to GET. However, she contended that allowing universities to impose differential tuition should be suspended, not eliminated, for the next biennium while the GET program stabilizes. “We aren’t looking to create an instability,” Sheppard said, “we ask for an alternative solution.”

And Sherry Burkey, Director for Legislative Relations for Western Washington University, echoed Shepherd’s suggestion to not eliminate differential tuition, “but [to] put it on a two-year hold until the economy turns around.”

It was the students, not the administrators, whose arguments apparently carried the day.

Their arguments evidently weren't persuasive. The bill that passed today eliminates universities' ability to impose differential tuition; it does not provide the option of suspension.

It was the students, not the administrators, whose arguments apparently carried the day. Angie Weiss, director of the Associated Students of the University of Washington (ASUW), argued at the same public hearing earlier this week that the increased financial burden on students is too much to bear. Engineering majors, for example, would have to pay $5,000 more in tuition if differential tuition was enacted. For students who don’t qualify for need-based financial aid ... differential tuition would “provide flexibility for institutions, but a barrier for students.”

And E.B. Vodde, legislative liaison for Associated Students of Eastern Washington University, testified about the possibility of a negative feedback loop. “Enacting differential tuition is going to create unaffordable education, lower enrollment, and with the students bankrolling the universities with 70 percent [of tuition costs], it's going to cause the universities to not have the money to function. […] We’re going to see a larger gap in our workforce for those high-demand degrees.”

“As a driver of innovation, differential tuition is an incredibly important tool,” Vodde acknowledged.

But in the big picture, protecting the GET program took precedence. “I think it’s unfortunate we’re caught in the situation we’re in,” Rep. Carlyle said.