Higher education on the precipice
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
For all things optional, money is disappearing. For the things we like government to do, but don’t absolutely insist upon, support is fading and, for some, soon to vanish. The unavoidables are chewing it away. On the state level, that means that constitutionally mandated spending on K-12 education and must-funds like health care, prisons, public safety, employee benefits, interest and debt payments, are eating up everything else. On the federal level, it’s the entitlements like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, along with defense and debt doing most of the chewing.
If it isn’t on the must-fund list, no matter how valuable or beneficial, funding will be in jeopardy. It can’t be helped. Look at higher education in Washington, our state universities and community colleges. They once were our pride, their contribution to society unquestioned, their necessity in a modern world obvious. Their research and contributions to science, medicine and agriculture sent great waves of energy through the economy. The idea that any student with talent and modest means could walk up and attend one of the finest universities in the world, with most of the cost covered by taxpayers, we thought was one of the ultimate aims of a democratic society. Opportunity for all was a noble goal.
We’re losing that. Other priorities are eating it away. As recently as the early 1990s taxpayers paid three-quarters of the cost of an undergraduate’s university education. With the recent rapid decline in state support that now has fallen below 50 percent. Students make up most of the difference with higher tuition. More cuts are coming. Under the best-case cuts, the state share falls to 35 percent at the universities. Under the worst case, 30 percent.
The Legislature, chewing away, asked the institutions of higher learning to respond to three scenarios: The $600 million in cuts for the next two-year budget proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, the governor’s cuts plus 15 percent more, and the governor’s cuts plus 30 percent. The answers were sometimes emotional. “Please know — without state funding and strategic solutions, everything is at risk. The opportunities The economic impact. The future of our state,” said University of Washington Interim President Phyllis Wise. Today, the universities operate at 1990 budget levels. In the current state budget the universities were cut 30 percent. “Under the governor’s proposed budget and your two scenarios, the UW will have lost over 50 percent of its state appropriation in just three years,” wrote Wise. “At the same time, demand for access to the UW and higher education has never been greater ...”
Budget cuts will mean more staff cuts, more tuition hikes on top of 14 percent hikes the last two years, fewer in-state students, more high-tuition out-of-state students, fewer programs and fewer class offerings. It will take longer to earn a degree. Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard said under the governor’s cuts, the average time to degree will rise from 4.6 to 5.7 years. Under the worst-case cuts, up to 6.9 years. Wise said to backfill the governor’s proposed cuts would require tuition hikes of more than 20 percent per year; 30 percent per year for the worst case.
For community and technical colleges the governor’s budget calls for a 23 percent funding cut; 27 percent in the worst case. To backfill would require 18 percent per year tuition hikes for the governor’s cuts; 23 percent per year for the high end. Enrollment would drop from the projected 163,000 students to 145,000, according to the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. “The social and economic costs of not educating these people are substantial The loss of jobs, opportunity and prosperity will impact our state for years to come,” the board wrote.
This is not to propose solutions. I don’t see any. Tuition will have to rise until many students decide a college degree isn’t worth the price. We have engineered our budgets and are designing a system where acquisition of knowledge beyond the 12th grade is an unsupportable luxury. Avoidable or not, we will regret it.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Tuesday through Friday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 665-1163.
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