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Wash. House passes bill to stop variable tuition

Donna Gordon Blankinship, Associated Press

SEATTLE (AP) -- The Washington House on Friday passed a bill to prevent the state's four-year colleges and universities from setting different tuition rates for different majors.

Before approving the measure 95-1, Republicans and Democrats said they worried about differential tuition threatening the solvency of Washington's prepaid tuition program. They said they also don't want to discourage students from pursuing degrees like computer science and engineering because the tuition is more expensive.

The Legislature had granted the authority to set differential tuition in 2011, but no one has put the idea into practice.

House Bill 1043 was designed to keep the state's prepaid tuition program solvent. Differential tuition is a problem for the Guaranteed Education Tuition program because it makes it difficult for the GET committee to keep its prices in line with future tuition costs.

Some lawmakers have recommended doing away with the GET program, while others say getting rid of differential tuition is the answer.

Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, who sponsored the bill, said the Legislature owes it to the 145,000 families who have invested their children's college money in the GET program to keep it going.

He noted, however, that the proposal won't fix the state's bigger higher education problem: how to pay to run the state's colleges without putting more of a burden on parents.

State government support for higher education has been cut about in half over the past decade.

Rep. Reuven Carlisle, D-Seattle, who sponsored the differential tuition bill a few years ago, spoke in favor of repealing the idea Friday.

"We were experimenting. Something that experimenting works and sometimes it doesn't," Carlisle said.

He said it is important that the Legislature prioritizes access to higher education for the middle class, and he called GET a great insurance policy for parents.

Rep. Hans Zeiger, R-Puyallup, and several other lawmakers expressed concern that differential tuition would be sending the wrong message to students when the state wants to push them toward technology careers.

"Differential tuition is the wrong kind of incentive going forward," Zeiger said. "What we don't want is higher tuition from STEM degrees."

Rep. Matt Manwell, R-Ellensburg, who works at Central Washington University, agreed.

"My fear is that we might accidentally create a situation where differential tuition would create a differential in opportunity," he said.

This bill still needs approval from the Senate and the governor's signature before it could become law.