Spurred by a grassroots, student-led campaign, the state of Washington in a legislative action last year dialed back its tuition fees at state colleges and universities in a historic reset that’s the first of its kind in the country.
Washington state lawmakers cut tuition at the state’s four-year colleges and universities by 15 to 20 percent in the 2015-17 budget.
University of Washington student Austin Wright-Pettibone told the Seattle Times that the tuition reset will save him $1,611 this year, or about a quarter of a maximum-sized subsidized federal loan. In 2015, as director of government relations for UW’s student government, Wright-Pettibone successfully lobbied state legislators to lower the cost of college tuition.
“It’s absolutely historic,” Wright-Pettibone told the Seattle Times. “I hope it will spark other conversations in state legislatures about the importance of higher education.” To listen to a podcast interview with Wright-Pettibone, go here.
The action was called a “meaningful reset” by Sen. John Braun, a Republican from Centralia. Braun told the Seattle Times that lowering tuition is a “great deal for students and middle-class families that put up with 34 percent tuition growth.”
A key component of the tuition reset in the state of Washington was its student-led effort. The Associated Students of the University of Washington formed a “Student Debt Reduction Working Group” in September 2013.
The group operated on a number of premises. One was that student debt is an urgent issue for Washington college and university students. Another was that middle class students are in a “squeeze” where they receive no financial aid despite having constrained resources to pay. Emboldened by its mission, the group pushed its agenda to state legislators.
The University of Washington student group’s premises will surely resonate across America’s higher education landscape and, of course, right here in Virginia.
Data from Lendedu, a company that provides information about student loan financing, showed that in 2015, 56 percent of Washington’s college graduates left school with debt. The average loan amount was $24,997.
In Virginia, the Lendedu data shows that 2016 students graduated with an average of $24,298 in debt.*
The amount of debt ranged from a low of $14,424 for the 65 percent of the University of Virginia-Wise students who graduated with debt, to a high $32,411 for the 66 percent of the Virginia Commonwealth University students who graduated with student loan debt.
One of the Washington student group’s key findings was that a student would have to work 54 hours a week all year to pay for the full education for the academic year at the University of Washington. The group raised awareness of the issue, developed strategies for community outreach, undertook legislative lobbying and formed administrative relationships for student debt reduction.
In Virginia, a student working for minimum wage would have to work just over 40 hours a week every week of the year just to pay the tuition and fees at the University of Virginia. For another comparison, a student would have to work almost 51 hours per week — assuming work beyond 40 hours per week earns time-and-a-half — every week of the year to afford the tuition and fees at the College of William & Mary.
In Washington state, the student group also built an active volunteer base to further its goals, meeting weekly in the 2013-14 academic year. Among other actions, the group made a presentation to the Washington State House of Representatives Higher Education Committee.
It’s a roadmap to success and shows how students can take ownership of the issue of a tuition reset and effect change on a statewide level. For information on how you can be a part of a grassroots campaign to lower tuition at Virginia’s four-year public colleges and universities, send us an email or visit our website.
*Data for Norfolk State University unavailable