Opinion

Washington State Cannot Afford More Cuts to Higher Education

By Josh Feit February 28, 2012



As Washington State’s public colleges and universities face a quiet crisis created by a massive state divestment in higher education over the last few years, our long-term economic future as a state is being put in serious jeopardy. This path of state disinvestment is compromising access, raising class sizes, reducing course offerings, and creating serious hardships across Washington State for students and their families, particularly those of more modest means.

This downward slide needs to be stopped, and stopped quickly. As the state’s grim budget situation has eased somewhat due to the combination of a significantly reduced caseload forecast and a slightly improved revenue projection, the time has come for elected officials in Olympia to draw a line in the sand: no more cuts to higher education.[pullquote]The end result will be a reverse brain drain, where many of our brightest students will leave the state to pursue their education -- and likely their careers -- elsewhere. [/pullquote]

As a recently appointed Washington State University regent, I have been learning the disturbing details first-hand. The truth is that our public colleges and universities have seen a continuous, steady decline in funding over the last two decades, with higher education funding falling off the proverbial cliff in the last four legislative sessions. During the recent economic downturn, higher education has been the first to face cuts --cuts that have been far deeper than in other budget areas.

For me, nothing illustrates the state’s deprioritization of higher education more than the following comparison: In the state general fund budget from 1991-1993, four-year institutions received $1.4 billion in state support, or 9 percent of the state’s $15 billion budget; from 2011-2013, with the overall budget twice as large, the four-year institutions are receiving only $980 million dollars, or just three percent of the state’s general fund budget.

For WSU, state support has been slashed by more than half—52 percent!—over the last four years. Tuition rose 16 percent this academic year, and is slated to rise by the same amount in the fall. But even with these big tuition hikes and expanded enrollments, the university is still losing at least $40 million in revenue this biennium.

As a result, nearly 600 currently filled or recently vacated positions at WSU have been eliminated. Academic colleges have been merged, academic departments consolidated, 17 degree programs were ended and another eight degrees have been consolidated or reduced, while more than 1,000 courses have been dropped from the course catalog.

The proposed supplemental budget would have slashed funding by an additional $26 million, just for WSU alone. As WSU President Elson Floyd recently pointed out,“our university could not have absorbed a reduction of the magnitude originally proposed without devastating, long-term effects.”

The recently proposed House Democratic budget is a vast improvement, but it includes an additional $9 million in cuts for WSU alone. Though House Democrats—particularly higher education champions like Rep. Reuven Carlyle and House Higher Education Committee chair Larry Seaquist—deserve credit for trying to soften the blow, that is still $9 million too much.

(The Senate apparently understands the gravity of the situation facing higher education. Late word is that the Senate proposed budget that will be released today will not further reduce higher ed funding.)

The picture is similarly bleak at the other four-year institutions, and the community and technical colleges are also facing deep cuts. This simply can not continue. In a state that is justifiably proud of our success in building an innovation economy—innovation built on a foundation of academic research and knowledge, put to productive use by a skilled and educated workforce —it is time to say, “Enough is enough.”

The evidence is clear that a college education is a critical component of lifetime success, and a well educated workforce is the key to prosperity in the 21st century. We simply can’t afford to fall further and further behind our competitors, nationally or internationally. We must not break our shared promise to the next generation that we will provide them the education and training they need to succeed in life. We must not turn access to a college degree into a privilege accessible only to students from wealthy families.

I understand that the legislators in Olympia face difficult choices, but de-funding higher education is shortsighted and will undermine the long-term economic vitality of our state. Increasingly, our economy depends on an educated workforce. By 2018, 63 percent of jobs nationally will require some kind of higher education degree. In Washington State that number is even higher, 67 percent. It is a basic supply and demand issue; as the demand for qualified graduates increases, we are putting ourselves on a path of declining capacity to meet that demand.

The end result will be a reverse brain drain, where many of our brightest students will leave the state to pursue their education—and likely their careers—elsewhere. That is not a recipe for continued success. Our state’s business leaders understand this, which is why they have been so concerned about the state’s disinvestment in higher education.

I know from my own personal experience how education, particularly higher education, can be the ticket to opportunity. I know that we must preserve the same educational opportunities that my generation enjoyed for those yet to come. If we do not, we will doom ourselves to a long, slow decline.

Hollowing out the major research institutions and the other colleges and universities is the wrong way to balance the state budget. Given the massive cuts that have already been made, I hope our elected leaders in Olympia will now begin looking to our longer-term needs by making sure our system of higher education is not starved further by lack of resources. We all need to call on them to reverse the trend of disinvestment, eliminate any cuts to higher education, and use the eased budget situation as the opportunity they have been looking for to help put Washington State on the road to recovery by investing in our future.

Ron Sims, a Washington State University regent, is the former King County Executive and Deputy Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the  Obama administration..
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