University president: WWU can’t keep up high marks for quality if state continues to cut funding

Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard said the school won’t be able to continue delivering high quality education if the state continues to cut funding, despite a ranking last month that said Western was one of the top regional universities at doing so.

A ranking from U.S. News and World Report from January placed Western second among universities in the West region in providing quality education efficiently. It took into account how much a school spends per student on educational programs and student services, and measured that against their 2015 Best Colleges rankings, which placed Western 21st in the region.

The West region includes Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, as well as states on the West Coast and every state in between.

Shepard said the university has been able to maintain its educational standards so far but said that will be hard to do in the future if the school doesn’t get more state help.

“To sustain the quality, yet efficiency, more funding is going to be needed,” Shepard said. “Any more cuts will make it impossible.”

The Washington State Council of Presidents, consisting of presidents from six four-year colleges in the state including WWU, requested in December that the state Legislature provide a $198 million investment for higher education over the next two years to support degree programs and student needs.

Their data shows that funding per student is lower now than it was in 1991. The state covered the majority of costs in the past. But when the state cut funding to higher education during the recession, colleges were forced to raise tuition, causing the funding ratio to flip and putting most of the burden on the colleges.

State lawmakers froze tuition increases in the 2013-15 budget, and Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed another two-year tuition freeze in his next budget.

To manage the lack of funding, Shepard said Western has had to sacrifice money for student support services — such as mental health and counseling centers — to maintain academic quality.

Western spokesman Paul Cocke said the number of clients at the college’s counseling center has doubled in the past five years. The demand for tutoring services has tripled, and the number of students who qualify for Western’s center for students with disabilities has grown by 77 percent since 2009.

Yet he said staffing and resources have not been able to keep up with the demand.

Shepard said the university has eliminated 200 jobs since the state slashed funding in half, though Cocke said this was often done strategically by not filling openings after retirements. Shepard also said compensation for university employees is below marketplace.

Those decisions were made in order to keep academic standards high, and Shepard said the U.S. News and World Report ranking validates that effort. But he is worried about what may happen with more state funding cuts.

The 2012 McCleary decision, in which the state Supreme Court ruled that Washington was not providing enough money for basic education, has raised concerns from the Washington State Council of Presidents that the needs of K-12 students will come at the expense of higher education.

“Further cuts would just be disastrous to the university because we really are taking more and more risks in those areas,” Shepard said.