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College Affordability In Spotlight Under The Dome In Boise, Olympia

Iain Laurence
Wikimedia Commons
File photo of North Seattle Community College. The idea of free tuition at community college is becoming a hot topic in Northwest states.

Students and parents with kids soon heading to a state college or university have reason to pay attention to the Washington and Idaho legislatures this coming month.

College affordability is the common purpose, but Washington state and Idaho lawmakers have different ideas for how to get there. In his State of the State speech, Idaho Governor Butch Otter proposed a "tuition lock” -- to freeze university tuition for incoming freshmen so they would pay the same rate for four academic years. Meanwhile, a measure introduced in the Washington state Senate on Thursday seeks to make community and technical college free for any Washingtonian without a college degree.

But State Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler hesitated to endorse it because this version doesn't identify a funding source.

"Show me how they're going to pay for it,” he said.

"I think what we need to do is talk about how important this is and then find the money for it," said State Senator Pramila Jayapal, the prime sponsor. At a press conference last week, the Seattle Democrat estimated the yearly cost of the tuition waiver between $100-125 million per year.

Washington isn't the first to entertain the idea of free tuition at community college. Oregon's legislature approved a limited program to start this coming fall quarter and President Obama ischampioning the idea at the national level.

Oregon's tuition waiver -- called Oregon Promise -- applies to a subset of community college students. In the first year of the program, eligibility for free tuition (fees still apply) is restricted to Oregon students who graduate from high school in spring/summer 2016 with a GPA of 2.5 or better and who then enroll in community college within the following six months.

Current high school seniors have to be pretty organized to take advantage. They have to apply for the Oregon Promise program by March 1, 2016. They also have to fill out the federal application for financial aid. The state program is a "last-dollar" program, meaning it covers whatever is left of the tuition bill after other student aid and scholarships are applied. The Washington state version would also be a "last-dollar" program.

In Idaho, a citizen initiative campaign that sought to reduce student tuition costs shut down last week. The movement, which campaigned under the banner, proposed to reduce tuition by 22 percent by raising state cigarette and tobacco taxes, including a $1.50 per pack hike on cigarettes.

Chief petitioner Bill Moran complained on Facebook that his campaign was "undermined" by the governor's office and health advocates who have designs on tobacco tax revenue to pay for expanded low-income health insurance.

Last year Washington state got the distinction of being the only state to actually cut public university tuition lately. The Washington Legislature reduced tuition at the state's four-year colleges and universities by 15 to 20 percent over two years and by 5 percent for two-year schools. That tuition cut was a legislative priority for Republicans, but passed with wide bipartisan support.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.