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By Jason Mercier
Contributing Writer 

Baumgartner introduces “Debt-Free Degree Act” to cap college tuition at 10 percent of state’s average wage


If a bill proposed by Spokane Sen. Michael Baumgartner becomes law, tuition at state colleges and universities would be capped at 10 percent of the state’s average wage. The 6th District Republican says the next phase of higher-education reform – his “Debt-Free Degree” plan – would begin as early as 2016.

“The most recent average wage for workers in the state of Washington was $51,500,” Baumgartner said, “so the maximum amount of tuition that a state college or university could charge would be roughly $5,200 per year. That gives every student in our state the opportunity to achieve the college dream at an affordable rate and – most importantly, without going into debt or charging it to taxpayers.” 

“This is really aimed at student debt,” Baumgartner added. “Debt is crippling college students. We need to create a first-class higher education system that allows students and their families to get through school without incurring debt, and we need to do it at a price level around what a student can afford with a part-time or seasonal job. Capping college tuition at 10 percent of the average wage does that.”

Under Baumgartner’s Debt-Free Degree proposal (Senate Bill 6043), the state would have to come up with an additional $200 million each year: a significant amount, he admits, but one that Baumgartner believes is both necessary and achievable without new tax increases.

“Of course the first question is, how do you propose to make up the difference so colleges and universities don’t suddenly find themselves without adequate funding?” Baumgartner continued. “The answer is simple: you make higher-ed a priority. The state is spending 33 billion dollars in the current operating budget. Next year we’ll have a roughly 36 billion-dollar budget in addition to the revenue from marijuana sales and a few other revenue sources. Coupled with projected revenue increases, there should be plenty of money. Allocating an additional 200 million dollars per year out of an additional 3 billion dollars is entirely practical.”

Baumgartner reaffirmed his belief that higher education and basic education should be considered equally important, citing the state’s “paramount duty” label now applied by Washington’s constitution only to the K-12 level. He added there will be moves in the near future to marry the two areas of education.

“Currently, higher education is not considered part of the state’s definition of basic education. I think that’s wrong,” Baumgartner added. “As we prepare our young people for jobs in the knowledge economy, we must give them the skills they need. As such, I’ll also be leading the effort to redefine ‘basic education’ in this state to include access to higher education.”

“In 2013 we prevented a tuition increase at our state-run colleges for the first time in 26 years,” Baumgartner continued. “In the next phase we’re going to bring down the cost of higher education so that it’s affordable for all without having to shoulder the burden of massive student loans.”

“When I graduated from WSU, tuition cost about three thousand dollars per year. Now, it’s nearly eleven thousand. There is no way a typical middle-class kid can afford to pay that much without going deeply into debt. I want a student to be able to work their way through college without debt like I did,” said Baumgartner. “The Debt-Free Degree plan is a way to lower tuition for everybody, and when more people can afford to go to college it means they’ll have a better chance of landing good-paying jobs and helping to drive our economy.”

SB 6043 is expected to receive a public hearing in the Senate Higher Education Committee.

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