This spring, thousands of Washington high school seniors strode across the stage to accept diplomas. For those who are college-bound, the question is, "What are they walking into?" Lawmakers will answer that question in January when they reconvene to write the next two-year budget. The spending plan will influence everything from college tuition and course offerings, to academic advising and campus construction projects.
This much is known: K-12 funding will be the priority. Huge investments are needed to comply with the State Supreme Court's McCleary decision. Two years ago, the court ordered the Legislature to make measurable progress each year to fully fund K-12 education by 2018.
What's unknown is how the Legislature will fund that mandate. The past practice of using college and university budgets as bank machines to pay for other needs would defeat the purpose. In today's economy, a high school diploma is a starting point, not a finishing line. A college education or work-based learning is the only real chance students have to earn a comfortable wage and survive future economic downturns. And, our state's economy depends on higher levels of skills and knowledge. That's why the state Legislature and governor adopted the goal that 70 percent of adults have a post-secondary credential by 2023.
Increasing K-12 funding with cuts to higher education would be like starting a race but tripping the runners.
Unlike K-12 education, college and university budgets are not protected by the state constitution. During the height of the recession, state funding for higher education was slashed dramatically. Students shouldered much of the burden in the form of double-digit tuition increases and heavier student loans.
To its credit, the Legislature stopped the downward spiral in the current state budget. Lawmakers spared higher education from further cuts and even made some much-needed investments, including more money for aerospace training. Still, all is not well with higher education funding.
When adjusted for inflation, the current state budget spends 23 percent less each year for community and technical colleges than in 2009. At Whatcom Community College, state funding now makes up less than half of the operating budget. Tuition increases and other resources are helping to fill the void, but students are bearing the burden. Community and technical college students now pay 35 percent of their higher education, up from 24 percent in 2009. Our community and technical college tuition is now the 16th highest in the nation. We used to be 24th.
Financial aid is another concern. About 32,443 eligible students are unable to get a State Need Grant due to insufficient funds. A majority of them - 18,800 students - are going to community and technical colleges. At WCC, 1,487 students received State Need Grants this academic year. Because of funding limitations, 385 students qualified but did not receive funds; 408 students received partial funding.
Public four-year universities, the intended destination for 43 percent of our students, have faced devastating cuts as well.
And while the Legislature didn't directly cut higher education funding when it adjusted the state budget last year, a "back-of-the-budget" provision reduces all state agency budgets with the assumption that cuts will be recouped if agencies simply were more efficient. For our already lean community and technical colleges, that translates into a $2.3 million budget cut system-wide.
Budget cuts to higher education amount to opportunities lost for Washington residents. The strength of our economy and the opportunities it provides is directly tied to the education of our residents.
Community and technical colleges fill an important niche in higher education because we train students to enter directly into high-demand jobs, or to transfer to a university at a more affordable cost. At WCC, 18 percent of degree- and certificate-seeking students train for careers in industries such as business, healthcare and technology; 82 percent transfer to four-year institutions. Degrees in science, technology, engineering and math are popular. At Whatcom, science, technology, engineering and math enrollments comprise 16 percent of the full-time student count, compared to the statewide average of 10 percent.
We also make higher education accessible and affordable for students at every age and stage in their lives. As jobs become more high-tech and high-skill, today's adult workers are pursuing degrees to sharpen their credentials and land promotions.
As the high school class of 2014 steps off the stage, lawmakers should assure graduates they are walking into a secure future - and confirm the long-term vitality of our community and state - by amply funding higher education.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Beth Willis is chair of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and Barbara Rofkar is a Whatcom Community College Trustee.