Thousands of Washington high school seniors recently walked across stages to receive their diplomas. For the college bound, the question is, “Where are they walking?” Lawmakers will answer that question in January when they write a new spending plan influencing everything from tuition and course offerings to academic advising and campus construction projects. K-12 funding will be the Legislature’s funding priority. Huge investments are needed to comply with the Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which two years ago ordered the Legislature to make measurable progress each year to fully fund K-12 education by 2018. The court thinks lawmakers are not doing enough to comply with McCleary and recently ordered the Legislature to explain in September why it should not be held in contempt. Leaders of the state’s colleges and universities are anxiously watching from the sidelines as an unprecedented constitutional contest between two branches of state government unfolds. How will the legislature come up with the funding to satisfy the court? The past practice of using college and university budgets as bank machines to pay other needs would defeat the purpose. In today’s economy, a high school diploma is a starting point, not a finishing line. Our state’s economy depends on residents attaining higher levels of skills and knowledge. College and university budgets are not protected by the state constitution as K-12 funding is. Unfortunately, inadequate funding for K-12 and higher education appears to pit the two against each other at a time when they need to work together. During the recession, state funding for higher education was slashed. College students shouldered much of the burden in the form of double-digit tuition increases and more student loans. From 2009-14, for example, tuition at Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake increased 36.8 percent. When adjusted for inflation, state support is 23 percent less for community and technical colleges than it was in 2009. Tuition increases helped fill the void. Big Bend students now pay 29 percent of the cost of their higher education, up from 18 percent in 2009. Financial aid is another concern. More than 18,800 community college students statewide are unable to get a State Need Grant because of insufficient funds. The need is growing: 70 percent of BBCC students receive some type of financial aid. In 2014, 37 percent of BBCC graduates trained for in-demand jobs with local industries, while 63 percent planned to transfer to a four-year university. Access to higher education is the only way our residents can directly enter high-demand jobs or transfer to a university at an affordable cost. Budget cuts to higher education mean lost opportunities for Washington residents. The strength of our economy and the opportunities it provides are tied to the education of our residents. Lawmakers should assure the class of 2014 they are walking into a secure future by amply funding higher education.
Beth Willis is chairwoman of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.Terry Leas is president of Big Bend Community College.