SEATTLE - Washington state's six four-year colleges and universities will be able to set their own tuition, which had previously done by the Legislature, under a measure that Gov. Chris Gregoire signed into law Monday.
Tuition increases ranging from 11 to 16 percent were expected under the 2011-2013 biennium budget passed in late May. But the new law gives University of Washington, Western Washington University, Washington State University, Central Washington University, Eastern Washington University and The Evergreen State College the ability to exceed those levels.
The transfer of authority to schools is meant to offset about $500 million in cuts to colleges and universities over the next two years.
"It is the right thing to do. Without it we will lower the quality of education in Washington and we will close the door to students," said Gregoire at the bill signing ceremony at Cleveland High School in Seattle Monday. She added that despite tough economic times, the legislation gives universities and colleges the resources and flexibility to stay competitive with other schools
To help ease the burden of upcoming tuition hikes, another measure signed into law Monday sets up the nonprofit Washington Opportunity Scholarship program and endowment to help low- and middle-income students earn bachelor's degrees in high demand areas such as health care, manufacturing, science, math and technology.
Representatives from The Boeing Co. and Microsoft Corp. announced at the ceremony that they would each pledge $25 million over the next five years into that program. The state will match private contributions dollar for dollar starting in 2014, not to exceed $50 million each year.
"We're here to create a fund that will support students today...as well as future generations of students," said Brad Smith, general counsel and senior vice president at Microsoft. He said the goal is to raise $1 billion by the end of this decade.
"Most of us in the business community recognize that we can only grow if there are talented individuals who can fill the jobs that we create and the expansion of college opportunities here in Washington state play a key role in doing precisely that," Smith said.
The first scholarships would be available in December. Students from families with incomes of up to 125 percent of the state median income would be eligible to apply.
"The shift in who pays for college in Washington -- transferring from the state to the student -- simply cannot occur without a robust financial support system," said UW Interim President Phyllis Wise said in a statement.
In-state tuition has been on a steep increase for the past few years. Washington State University has proposed 16 percent tuition hike for the 2011-12 academic year, which would bring tuition at $9,374 for an undergraduate in-state resident. WSU's Board of Regents is set to meet Monday afternoon to finalize the decision.
The University of Washington Board of Regents plans to discuss tuition at a meeting Thursday and to make a decision at a special meeting June 30.