By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - With his parents out of work and an office job paying his bills, college junior Shane Bang remembers the anxiety he felt when his younger brother told his family he was headed to University of Washington in the fall.
Then they got an unexpected lifeline. A law that took effect last month slashed tuition at public colleges and universities over the next two academic years as much as 20 percent for all Washington students, rich and poor alike.
They were the only such cost-cuts in the nation in 2015, and the first in the state's history, Republicans say, and will save the family $6,981, by university estimates.
"We'll all have less pressure," Bang said.
For the last academic year, a Washington student paid about $12,000 in tuition and mandatory fees to attend the state's two flagship universities.
That is higher than the U.S. average of $9,139 for in-state students at public four-year institutions, but less than New Hampshire schools which average $14,712, the nation's costliest, according to the nonprofit College Board.
Washington's cuts, praised as "historic" by Republicans and as a "great move" by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, come after decades during which public college tuition bills grew faster than inflation, according to data from the board, which administers the SAT entrance exam.
Total undergraduate debt has ballooned over the last 10 years, propelled by stagnant family income, the board reported.
States cut funding for higher education for several years across the country beginning with the Great Recession of 2008, and state lawmakers and governing boards increased tuition to help compensate for any shortfalls.
As the United States slowly recovered from the recession, many states opted to freeze tuition or cap increases, said Thomas Harnisch, a policy analyst with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Per-student higher education funding levels are still below pre-recession ones in all but three states, and, as of the last school year, Washington was among 10 states that had made the biggest cuts since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank.
Harnisch said it unlikely that other states would copy Washington's cuts, signed by Democratic Governor Jay Inslee in late June. This year, only Minnesota trimmed community college tuition, by 1 percent.
By comparison, Washington lowered community college tuition by 5 percent, in addition to cutting tuition at public universities. It also tied future tuition increases to a 2.1 percent annual growth rate for median hourly wages, derived from a 14-year trailing average.
"In eight years of following education policy in the United States, I've never seen anything close to what Washington has done," Harnisch said.
The tuition reset has been praised by students and the state's flagship universities, as well as by Republican activists eying next fall's election, when the chief Republican budget writer, Senator Andy Hill, is among three favorites talked about as challengers to Inslee.
State Republicans put forward the proposal as their core budget goal after winning control of the upper chamber last November, said its architect, Senator John Braun.
"Higher ed is one of the key drivers of economic mobility," said Braun.
The cuts were initially opposed by House Democrats, who controlled the lower chamber and viewed them as a "throwaway offer" at the onset of months-long budget negotiations, said Representative Ross Hunter, the chief budget writer for the Democratic majority.
The Democrats rebuffed the initial Republican proposal because it would have cut tuition at prestigious universities by taking money from a grant program and raising tuition at community colleges, while forgoing new taxes, Hunter said.
"I would have preferred to increase the money we spent on student aid, so that we can help first-generation people go to college," Hunter said.
Ultimately, boosted by huge tax-revenue forecasts, lawmakers funded the roughly $220 million in tuition cuts using unexpected federal funds, by closing tax loopholes and by levying taxes on out-of-state and online sales, among other revenue sources, Hunter said.
Some education policy analysts agreed that more could have been done to help the poorest get into, and pay for, college.
Ben Wildavsky, a policy professor at State University of New York at Albany, said Washington state's cuts will likely give a "windfall to more affluent families."
University of Washington campus Republicans plan to trumpet the cuts in the hope of drawing new members and say they will be useful to mention as they try to sway voters in Seattle's Democratic-leaning King County.
Chris Vance, a former chairman of the state's Republican Party, said the cuts mean his own daughter will save about $2,000 over the next two years at Washington State University.
"Putting more money into education without raising taxes is music to the ears of suburban voters," Vance said.
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Steve Orlofsky and Lisa Shumaker)