University of Washington students were joined by campus union representatives and members of the community in a statewide coordinated day of action in opposition to differential tuition on Wednesday. The group of 20 to 30 demonstrators marched to UW President Michael Young's office to show support for House Bill 1043, legislation that limits public state universities' ability to set differential tuition.
The differential tuition model, which charges different prices for different majors, would increase costs of degrees from in-demand and costly programs, like Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) and business programs. While differential tuition could provide additional higher education funding and potential program expansions, it would place a greater burden on students, who are already faced with recent tuition hikes and ballooning student loans.
"The bottom line is differential tuition is tuition hikes in a different name," says UW senior Grace Flott, a member in UW United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS).
UW USAS, which focuses on labor rights and working conditions, coordinated the demonstration alongside Evergreen USAS and Western Voices at Western Washington University. USAS is not the only UW student organization to oppose this model; the Associated Students of University of Washington (ASUW) officially opposes differential tuition as well.
The recent student demonstrations are an attempt to target university administration members as the legislature gains momentum in Olympia, following the House's approval in February. Next month, the state Senate will vote on House Bill 1043.
At UW and in Olympia, people have expressed concern that differential tuition will perpetuate unequal access to education, in particular through the Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program. Viewed as an essential program opening doors to higher education, GET provides a prepaid tuition plan with units based on today's tuition rates. With differential tuition, these units would see further increase as they are pegged to the highest cost of resident, undergraduate tuition in Washington state.
Flott says the differential tuition model would create greater barriers to higher education, especially on low-income students who already face financial challenges getting into universities.
"[Differential tuition] is contradictory to a lot of existing programs, such as the [UW] Dream Project or Husky Promise," says Flott. "I don't know how that would be reconciled with variable tuition rates."
Students also worry that differential tuition will create disincentive to explore choices at university.
"The differential tuition model creates unequal access to education," says Rachel Shevrin, a sophomore in UW USAS. "It can defer people from pursuing certain majors that are more costly."
Although the Wednesday demonstration was based around issues of differential tuition, USAS members explained that it is also an opportunity for students to increase engagement with state and campus decision-makers.
"Everyone pays tuition... it's something that all students have a stake in," says Flott. "We're the biggest stakeholders in the university and the way our tuition is decided is in part a negotiating process in Olympia. It's important that students are involved in the conversation."