Friday, January 2, 2009

Multiple choices but no good answer - either cut college budgets or raise tuition

Tuesday’s News Tribune featured a story by Joe Turner about potential tuition hikes at state colleges and universities. Joe reported that in light of the $5.7 billion revenue shortfall, Governor Gregoire and other lawmakers are trying to lessen the severity of cuts in the state’s higher education system by allowing colleges to raise tuition.

Tuition at the University of Washington and other state colleges could rise much higher than the 7 percent annual increases proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire...

The severity of the budget crisis suggests lawmakers might again turn to huge tuition hikes to offset deep cuts they otherwise would have to make to higher education...

Overall, Gregoire’s budget would cut $350 million from budgets of the six four-year universities and 34 community and technical colleges. That’s 13 percent of their collective budgets, which concerns key lawmakers.

Joe talked to a few of those “key” lawmakers (but mostly on the Senate side - where's the love for our House members?). So we tracked down two House members who will have a lot to say about this and asked a few questions of our own. Rep. Deb Wallace chairs the House Higher Education Committee and Rep. Kathy Haigh chairs the House Education Appropriations Committee. In their own words:

The Governor is proposing a 13% cut to four-year colleges and universities and 6% cut to two-year colleges. What was your initial reaction to seeing her budget?

Wallace: I was happily surprised that the cuts to higher education were not deeper in the Governor’s budget. Several years back I worked as the director of Planning and Development at CTRAN, the transit agency in Clark County, and we had to take a 22% cut after the passage of I-695. Cuts that deep carve out essential services. While I hate to see any cuts to Higher Education I think we can be more efficient in our spending to maintain college access.

Haigh: I was very please the governor did not take the 20% cut she originally posed as an option. We have a little more wiggle room in the higher education budget than originally thought. The 4-year and research institutions will bear a little greater brunt because they have the larger budgets and a little more flexibility.

The community and technical colleges have programs we will work very hard to save because their mission aligns with our goal of getting people trained and ready to move forward in career and the world of work as quickly as possible.

Are there specific programs or budget items that are particularly important to you?

Wallace: I am dedicating my time to helping more people gain the job skills they need to get a good job and build a career. I think it is critical to make changes in the way we offer higher education programs to make it more affordable and to help more students attend school. Businesses in Washington need and want to hire skilled employees in our state. I am also focused on making the higher education institutions more transparent and accountable for their results.

Haigh: I will remain committed to STEM (science, technical engineering and math). This is a national movement and it is gaining momentum. The need to offer courses that focus on health services, technical engineering and teacher prep are likely to be preserved, and the colleges will need to make the decisions about what courses must go for now. I do not want to make those decisions at the state government level.

Last biennium lawmakers approved more than $80 million in new financial aid funding and expanded enrollment in our state’s colleges by nearly 10,000 slots. How do you think our short-term budget challenges will shape or alter our state’s long-term plans for increasing access and affordability at our colleges and universities?

Wallace: My goal given our dire budget situation is to hold onto the student count the state currently provides and to make efficiencies by focusing on high demand career occupations where we know jobs are available. While I believe all education is valuable, the state has limited funding so we need to realign our investment priorities.

One example is in the area of teacher preparation. We currently fund several thousand students to gain their primary grade teaching certificates however we don’t necessarily have that many teaching positions open in our state. However, we are practically begging for graduates in middle and high school math and science teaching slots. Since the state pays approximately half the cost of education shouldn’t we prioritize how we spend our tax investment? It is critical that we focus on areas where we have career shortages with our limited funding. As you can imagine this is a controversial subject and it will require much debate.

Community college tuition will not increase more than already allowed in their budgets for the next year, and I believe that is about 5%. Offering more opportunity for scholarships and perhaps lower interest rate loans are more ways to help folks through the next few years. I believe we will renew the option of tuition setting authority for out-of-state students in the next four years, but I doubt we will give them authority to increase in-state tuition over the 7% now allowed.

Higher education is the foundation of a strong state economy. Community colleges have expanded access all across the state at good tuition rates that get people trained and educated in one of the most effective and efficient systems in the country. Allowing those institution to fail or reduce enrollment is the wrong direction for a struggling state economy. The bad news is this is going to be really hard. The good news is that most people understand and agree that we must preserve programs and expand opportunity for all students in Washington state.