How budget cuts short-changed the UW

Some straight talk about complicated budget maneuvers, making clear that the University was one of the biggest losers in the nation, and the state.
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Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. (UW)

Some straight talk about complicated budget maneuvers, making clear that the University was one of the biggest losers in the nation, and the state.

Confused about how the University of Washington fared in the 2009-11 biennial budget? So was I — and I'ꀙm an insider, having devoted my entire career to building one of UW'ꀙs highest impact programs, Computer Science & Engineering. Here's what I found out, after doing some research on the question.

There can be room for honest debate about whether the decisions that were made by the legislature and the governor were smart in terms of the future of the state, but there shouldn'ꀙt be any confusion regarding the facts. As we enter another difficult budget session, it'ꀙs important to think about where those decisions put the university and what steps will best position our region and the kids who grow up here for the future.

The 2009-11 state operating budget reduced the UW'ꀙs funding by $214 million ($107 million per year), a 27 percent reduction in state funding compared to the prior biennium. To partially offset this cut, the state used one-time federal stimulus funding (adding back 3 percent or $25 million), plus tuition increases (adding back 11 percent or $90 million). There were also budget additions for restricted line items such as employee benefit increases (amounting to 5 percent or $43 million).

Washington'ꀙs cuts to higher education were the fourth highest in the nation (after Montana, Ohio, and South Carolina). Within the higher education budget for the state, the University of Washington fared particularly poorly — roughly twice as poorly as higher education overall. This is not just a phenomenon of the current recession. In fact, since 2001-03, state spending is up by 38 percent, but state support for UW is down by 12 percent. State support for community and technical colleges is up by 28 percent, despite the fact that Washington already ranks 5th best in the nation in public community college capacity per capita, but a lowly 49th in public bachelors (four-year degrees) capacity per capita.

The principal role of great public universities is to provide socioeconomic upward mobility to the citizens of their states. In this regard, the University of Washington does very well and remains highly accessible. Here are some of the relevant figures: 88 percent of UW undergraduates are Washington state residents; 21 percent of UW undergraduates are Pell Grant recipients (receiving federal aid to low-income students); 30 percent of this year'ꀙs incoming freshmen are first-generation college students.

Even after the 14 percent tuition increase for resident undergraduates in 2009-10, UW tuition remains the lowest among "Global Challenge" peers (ten similar universities in states with economies like Washington'ꀙs, chosen by Olympia for comparative purposes). Currently, UW tuition and fees total $7,692 per year. WSU is slightly higher at $8,488. The major private universities in the state charge between 3.5 and 4.5 times as much — from $27,810 at Seattle Pacific University to $36,940 at Whitman. The Husky Promise program guarantees that any academically qualified student whose family qualifies for a Pell Grant or State Need Grant (income up to $54,500 for a family of four) will attend UW tuition-free.

Further cuts will surely erode both accessibility and quality. Here are some examples of the impact of this biennium'ꀙs cuts from the perspective of my unit, Computer Science & Engineering (CSE), a program of the UW College of Engineering that is ranked among the top ten computer science programs in the nation.

UW CSE, and every other academic unit in the UW College of Engineering, took a 10 percent cut in its permanent budget this biennium. For UW CSE, the effect of this was to roll back the only enrollment increase we have been granted in the past decade. At the undergraduate level, UW CSE can accommodate only about one-third of the students who apply — these are current UW students seeking to major in Computer Science or Computer Engineering. At the graduate level, UW CSE can accommodate less than 10 percent of the students who apply — outstanding students from across the state, the nation, and the world.

Overall, the number of bachelors degrees granted by the UW College of Engineering is approximately the same today as it was 30 years ago — despite dramatic shifts in our state'ꀙs economy that require this sort of education.

The Washington State Employment Security Department regularly studies where the job growth in our state'ꀙs economy is likely to be. Among the 22 major occupational categories, computer science occupations are projected in the most recent forecast (2006) to be the fastest growing, by far. Engineering occupations rank second. And these jobs are high-impact, meaning they are jobs that create other jobs.

Our state'ꀙs economy is transitioning. First, we produced goods whose content was largely physical (fish, timber). Next, we produced goods whose content was a mixture of physical and intellectual (electronics manufacturing, aerospace). Today, the vanguard of our economy involves the production of goods whose content is almost entirely intellectual (software, biotech, biomedicine, telecommunications, services). We must educate the kids who grow up here to compete for these jobs.

Public investment in research-intensive universities has enormous leverage. As an example, over the past dozen years, public investment in UW Computer Science & Engineering has been leveraged by $110 million in external programmatic funds, $73 million in philanthropy, and $236 million in venture investment in startup companies. All this has yielded 2,653 high-impact degrees. At the University of Washington overall, research is a $1 billion annual business. Economic studies in our state find that every $1 million in R&D creates more than seven direct jobs and more than 14 indirect jobs — more than 20 jobs in total.

These are difficult economic times — for families, for businesses, and for governments. Those states and regions that emerge the strongest will be those that make smart choices that position them to compete successfully. Smart choices begin with a clear understanding of the decisions of the past, their impact on the present, and the opportunities of the future.

For more background and charts on the topic, there is a fuller version of this article.


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