Short-term cuts pose long-term threats to state higher education

The presidents of the state's universities are united in stressing the need for adequate higher education funding, a key to the state's future. But they seem to want to ignore the state's revenue problem.

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University of Washington (2007)

The presidents of the state's universities are united in stressing the need for adequate higher education funding, a key to the state's future. But they seem to want to ignore the state's revenue problem.

For those of us who are easily diverted by spring gardening chores, the inclement weather has made it a good year to follow the legislative budget battles as they play out in the press and electronic media.

But unfortunately the weather indoors at the state Capitol hasn’t been great either. At one point temperatures under the dome flared and a few citizens protesting the failure of legislators to find revenues for social needs, by ending tax breaks, were arrested and ejected.

And this is the second straight biennium that Olympia’s budget cutters have targeted the state’s public higher education system, the six four-year colleges and 34 community and technical colleges, and in particular students and their parents. In the current two-year budget, cuts in direct funding were only partially offset by increased tuition.

This time, in the House version of the state’s 2011-13 operating budget, almost all of the cuts are assumed to be made up by tuition increases while some student aid is slashed. The Senate’s proposed budget, although cutting deeper, would allow even higher tuition levels and preserve more student aid, so the net effect on higher education funding is less than the budget passed by the House.

The differences between the two budgets, which are not large, will be reconciled in the next week and a half as the legislature heads for adjournment of its regular session on April 24. Whatever the final mix of direct funding, tuition, and student aid, the cuts will have a serious impact on our higher education system. In the case of the University of Washington, the Senate’s budget would reduce funding by 6 percent compared to the 2009-2011 biennium.

More of the students who can afford to pay much higher tuition will be from foreign countries and from other states. In-state students will find fewer seats available, and overall enrollment will be limited. But even more worrisome, the cuts may have the longer term effect of reducing public support for education and other essential programs, and for a tax system that can fund them.

As everyone from President Obama to economic pundits and local politicians have said, this is not the time to close the doors to a college degree. More young people need advanced education and training so that they can personally succeed and so that this nation can effectively compete in the global economy.

But taxpayers do need to see personal benefits when they are asked to pony up their hard-earned dollars. Even when parents can afford higher tuition, if their bright and capable kid can’t get a seat in a Washington college classroom and must look out of state, it will register disappointment. The result may be less support for the state’s system and the funding it requires.

This possibility does not seem to have registered with the state’s higher education establishment and its chief supporters. KCTS Channel 9’s Enrique Cerna last week interviewed a panel of five of the six presidents of the state’s four-year schools, and separately the UW Alumni Association’s chief and a member of the governor’s Higher Education Funding Task Force.

The program provided an excellent overview of the problem, but at no time in the hour-long discussion did the issue of revenue come up. The presidents seem to be of one mind: It is solely an issue of providing higher education with a bigger piece of the budget pie, no matter that the pie has shrunk substantially and may even get smaller.

But at least they are working the problem. The Council of Presidents has joined with higher education — students, parents, faculty, alumni, business, and labor — in the College Promise Coalition. They advocate messages to legislators that “enough is enough” and “no more cuts.”

As for the UW alumni, their president indicated it’s a matter for alumni to exhort their legislators to “act”, to “do something creative.” This is being organized through an effort called UW Impact which intends to reach the some 213,000 UW grads in the state. But when last checked, their website showed no community events scheduled “at this time”.

Then one wonders about the governor’s role. Last year, with some fanfare, Governor Gregoire announced the formation of the Higher Education Funding Task Force lead by Brad Smith of Microsoft. Their report was released January 3.

For Channel 9 viewers the task force representative had a similar message — action is needed. But the task force report seems to have hit a wall. One of its key provisions — to build up over ten years a $1 billion endowment for student scholarships equally funded by corporations and the state — failed to make it into the budget and a separate bill was not moved from a spending committee. Its fate seems uncertain, perhaps because it asked that the state’s share be in the form of a B&O tax break for contributing corporations that would cost the state $100 million per year over five years.

Then in February, the governor announced an initiative to reform education from pre-school through college. Her proposal to the legislature would unify the state's eight education agencies and 14 major education plans under a new Department of Education. All student learning from pre-school through higher education would have a common focus. A Secretary of Education would lead the department's work to develop a strategic plan, provide system-wide accountability, and guide implementation of innovative student-centered services and practices. A bill was introduced but did not move from committee.

Even a casual observer has to conclude that support for higher education is in a serious muddle, and that budget writers have been left to their own devices to deal with it when everything is on the table except new revenue options. And they haven’t been exactly “creative” as the chief House budget writer made perfectly clear on TVW.

To this observer, the problem is that higher education is not accustomed to asking for new and more certain sources of revenue. And it doesn’t help if some of its chief advocates appear to be philosophically opposed to tax reform. Some gave large contributions to the campaign against I-1098, the state income tax measure, but offered no alternative.

What we seem to be hearing is a version of the “trickle down” theory of taxation, i.e. if the legislature would just come up with enough money in the short-term to fund higher education (including funds for student aid) at a reasonable level, even if it has to take it from social safety net programs, the resulting high-wage jobs will eventually begin to generate tax revenues that will once again allow state funding at former higher levels. In other words, a rising tide lifts all boats.

This is a bet on a future that continues to rely on an inadequately productive and unfair tax system — a system that is riddled with tax breaks that serve to buy off serious interest in comprehensive reform.

Supporters of the state’s social safety net have been vocal in their demands that the legislature repeal and modify breaks that can no longer be defended. Yet the higher education community has not joined with them in common purpose. And even for some higher education advocates among the state’s business community, such as the Washington Roundtable, a member of College Promise Coalition, tax breaks should not be tampered with.

It's time for all supporters of higher education to get real and actively work with others in a united effort to change the state’s tax structure.

The college heads don’t need to join the demonstrators, but they do need to acknowledge that the state has a revenue problem. They need to acknowledge that our state is not so poor that it can’t find the needed revenues to restore funding levels to keep the door open to a quality system of education.

The writer, Dick Nelson, is a member of the UW Alumni Association.


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Dick Nelson

Dick Nelson is a former Washington State legislator. He currently contributes to the public debate on state and local fiscal issues through research and commentary. As when he was in the legislature, he prefers the Democratic Party.