Lawmakers must not short-shrift higher ed

Special to The OlympianMay 28, 2013 

As lawmakers negotiate a final compromise state budget for the next two years, they will be focused on many issues, from taxes and K-12 education spending to social services and the rainy day fund. Critical as all these issues are, we urge legislators also pay close attention to higher-education budget issues.

The House and Senate budgets should be applauded for providing significant funding for the College Bound Scholarship program. The College Bound program offers scholarships to needy students who sign up in middle school. Preliminary data suggest College Bound students are graduating from high school at higher rates than other students.

One issue that has received scant attention in current budget plans are the 32,000 low-income college students who qualify for the largest financial aid program (State Need Grant) but are not receiving grants because of a shortage of funds. These students are striving valiantly both to succeed in their studies and to find ways of financing their educations. We know because 29 percent of the eligible students at our ten colleges, and 28 percent at Saint Martin’s University, are not receiving state grants.

Within the State Need Grant program, another issue of great concern to our students is the disparity between our students’ awards and those granted to students at public research universities. Students at our colleges, who got the same grant as students at the University of Washington and Washington State University for over a decade prior to 2011, now receive $2,350 less per year. The House budget would make that inequitable disparity even larger.

Students at independent non-profit colleges saw tuition rise nearly as much as tuition rose at UW and WSU over the past two years. But the state chose to ignore the tuition increases at our colleges, providing instead for an increase of just 3.5 percent of tuition at the public research universities. We are asking the state to equalize these awards over the next four years. Under the terms of the Senate budget, this would require an increase of less than one percent in program funding.

Equity should be as important to lawmakers as it is for our students. Our students return value for the state. A recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse reveals that students enrolling as freshmen at private four-year colleges in Washington have an 82 percent graduation rate. That’s the highest graduation rate for any college sector in any state in the nation except for the District of Columbia.

Our independent nonprofit colleges enroll tens of thousands of Washington residents, 31 percent of whom qualify as low income. Since our colleges do not receive state support, we provide access to higher education at relatively low cost to the state — the state pays only for financial aid for our needy resident students. This is how we produce one in five bachelor’s and advanced degrees awarded in Washington with just 2 percent of the state’s higher education budget.

Public colleges need adequate funding to continue offering access to high-quality higher education. We are concerned about the cumulative impact of several years of big cuts in state funding for public colleges. A recent report by the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) found that Washington was among the handful of states that have cut the most out of their higher education budgets since the arrival of the Great Recession. Restoring some of these reductions is likely necessary.

Finally, we note that where the budget proposals are putting new funding into higher education, it is notably for narrowly focused efforts, such as engineering. We are strong advocates of engineering — as is shown, for example, by the brand-new engineering building we just opened at Saint Martin’s University, Cebula Hall. Yet we hope lawmakers will not prioritize a few majors at the expense of the colleges and universities as a whole. According to a recent national survey of business leaders, 93 percent say, “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major.” Employers seek in future employees those qualities which are the hallmark of a broad education in the liberal arts and sciences.

We don’t envy legislators the difficult work they face negotiating a final budget. But we do sincerely hope that as they do so, they will put higher education at the core of our strategy for building a vibrant economy and a high quality of life for current and future generations.

Roy Heynderickx is president of Saint Martin’s University in Lacey and a member of the board of directors of Independent Colleges of Washington, an association of ten private nonprofit colleges and universities in Washington.

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