A little-noticed measure passed by the Legislature and signed into law by the governor will extend in-state tuition rates at Washington state colleges and universities to foreign professionals at companies such as Microsoft and Amazon, as well as to their children and spouses.
Under House Bill 1487, which takes effect July 1, the foreign workers would qualify for the same tuition rate as state residents if they have been in the state at least a year on certain kinds of temporary work visas, such as the H-1B.
The measure passed amid a roiling budget crisis and hundreds of millions of dollars in cutbacks to higher education. It was nicknamed the "Microsoft subsidy bill" by some lawmakers who say the software giant and its workers surely could afford to pay the higher tuition rates.
Subject to lively legislative debate, the bill received little attention outside the Capitol. An analysis put the immediate tuition revenue loss at the University of Washington at about $430,000, with potential for bigger losses in future years, and about $215,000 at Washington State University.
State Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, the bill's sponsor, retired from Microsoft in 2000 after 17 years. He said employers in his Eastside district sought the provision as a tool for recruiting foreign talent.
"There are a bunch of people in my district who are in this situation," said Hunter, who is running for King County executive.
The bill passed the House 59-38 and the Senate 31-13.
Lydia Tamez, associate general counsel and director of global migration at Microsoft, said it would allow Washington to attract and keep talented foreign professionals and to compete with about 13 other states, including Oregon, that already offer tuition breaks to foreign workers.
Microsoft has thousands of workers who may qualify.
The company said spouses of the visa holders often cannot work legally in the U.S., leaving the costs of college classes or pursuing a college degree to be borne on a single income.
"These are people who are here lawfully, and are going to be here for a long period of time," Tamez said. "It makes it affordable for workers who are your neighbors, pay taxes, buy homes and whose kids hang around with your kids to possibly earn a second degree at night."
A state resident who is a full-time undergraduate at UW will pay $7,677 in tuition and basic fees next year, compared with $24,352 for a full-time nonresident student.
Rep. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, opposed the measure, calling it unfair to resident students at a time when the state is making it more difficult for everyone to afford to go to school in the state.
"It's a diversion of limited resources," Hasegawa said. "We only allow X amount of slots for resident tuition rates and we are displacing those residents with H-1B visa holders, their families and dependents. Microsoft can well afford out-of-state tuition for its people."
Furthermore, Hasegawa said, some dependents of visa holders already were eligible to receive in-state tuition under a measure passed six years ago.
That bill, HB 1079, was meant to benefit illegal immigrant children who had lived in the state at least three years before graduating from a Washington high school.
But the measure was written so broadly that children of visa holders who also had graduated from a state high school became unintended beneficiaries. State records show about one-quarter of those who have gotten the tuition break since 2003 were visa holders.
HB 1487 will benefit a much broader student population. It doesn't require someone to have graduated from a Washington high school to qualify, and it reduces from three years to one year the time a person must first live in the state.
Certain types of visa holders already qualify for in-state tuition under state law, including those here on fiancé visas, consulate workers, foreign journalists and those working for international organizations, such as the United Nations.
"There have been concerns raised by visa workers regarding how expensive it is if they wanted to start working toward an MBA... ," Tamez said. "We lose workers every year because of the tuition issue."