Higher-ed funding idea: Charge international students more

UW has 6,000 international students.

Each fall, thousands of students from overseas apply to study at the University of Washington (UW) and other state schools. So why not charge them extra, then use that money to help solve higher education’s funding woes?

That’s the thinking behind a new Senate bill that could raise as much as $60 million over two years by levying a 20 percent surcharge on international students.

It’s one of a handful of strategies some Senate leaders are proposing to try to increase higher-education funding.

But universities say the fee is so high that it will drive international students away from state schools, leading to a loss of revenue — not an increase.

The fee “would make us seriously noncompetitive in the marketplace,” said UW spokesman Norm Arkans.

It “simply will not work … a further 20 percent tax will drive away numbers of current foreign students, creating a hole in budget revenues that will actually be larger than the unrealizable $60M,” said Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard, in a statement.

Currently, at Washington four-year schools, out-of-state and international students pay the same tuition, which is nearly three times what an in-state student pays. The higher tuition subsidizes in-state students.

Supporters of the Senate bill say it’s only fair that students from outside the country pay even more.

“The kid from Idaho, his parents have been paying federal taxes for years, so there should be a difference between what the kid from Idaho pays and what the kid from Taipei pays,” said Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, D-Mercer Island, noting that the UW receives about $1.2 billion a year in federal grants.

Only a handful of state universities nationwide levy a surcharge on international students. The University of Illinois recently began charging an extra $1,000 to $3,000, depending on the program.

Purdue University last year added a $2,000-a-year international fee, which prompted demonstrations in February by Chinese students studying at Purdue.

Tom said he wasn’t bothered that so few other state universities levy a surcharge. “Sometimes you need to be a leader,” he said.

Washington’s community colleges already charge a higher rate for international students — about $10,000 for three quarters, including fees. In-state students pay about $4,400.

At the UW, which has the largest international student population, the bill, SB 5893, would increase the price of undergraduate tuition by about $6,000 — to $35,000 a year.

Sen. Barbara Bailey, a co-sponsor of the bill, says she doesn’t think the extra charge would have any effect on enrollment because Washington schools are so well-regarded internationally.

“Most of our foreign students are not particularly low income; they have means, and I think they will come, regardless,” the Oak Harbor Republican said.

The UW’s 6,000 international students apply to many schools around the country, and some do consider the UW a relative bargain compared with private schools like Harvard, said Era Schrepfer, executive director of the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students (FIUTS).

The independent, nonprofit organization on the UW campus works on building a global community in the Puget Sound region.

But Schrepfer also said UW international students come from families with a wide range of income levels, and many are under pressure to spend money wisely while they are here. Most of the students are from China, South Korea, Vietnam and other Pacific Rim nations.

“They already pay significantly more than state residents and they’re very, very aware of it,” Schrepfer said.

A $6,000 boost in tuition might not seem like a big difference to some students, but “at the same time, it’s not a very friendly or welcoming position for our state to be in,” she said.

Reacting to the Senate budget Thursday, university officials raised other issues about the Senate’s plans for higher-education funding.

Among their concerns: a cut applied to each school’s budget for “administrative efficiencies.”

Arkans, at the UW, said several years of budget cuts have already required the school to be much more efficient, and he didn’t know if the UW could find any more cuts.

And Shepard, at WWU, said the efficiency cut “ is magical thinking or, more accurately, an attempt to disguise what is, plain and simple, another damaging budget cut.”

Tom said the Senate budget gives the schools an 11 percent increase, and “the rest of state government would love to have those kinds of numbers.”

But both the UW and WWU say the Senate budget does nothing to significantly increase money for higher education.

©2013 The Seattle Times. Visit The Seattle Times at www.seattletimes.com. Distributed by MCT Information Services.