State must reverse course on funding for colleges

The Evergreen State College President Les Purce has joined his five colleagues at the state’s other public universities to support a plan for averting further tuition increases over the next two years.

It’s a good plan the Legislature should try to adopt. Lawmakers might hesitate – facing another $900 million shortfall and the Supreme Court pressing for progress on basic education funding – but it’s time to reinvest, before a college education becomes unaffordable.

State budget cuts to higher education have driven 14 percent tuition increases in each of the last four years at Evergreen and similar increases at the other institutions.

Cumulatively speaking, Evergreen students saw their tuition fees skyrocket by 70 percent, even though the college still needed to trim $6 million from its operational budget.

The state’s support of higher education at Evergreen has dropped from 65 percent to 35 percent, forcing students and their families to make up the difference.

The trend is unsustainable. Everyone knows it, but solutions are elusive.

In her final annual budget released last month, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s recognized the dramatic reductions in public support for higher education and the burden it has placed on individuals.

She proposed to keep tuition flat over the next two years, but made no provision for additional higher education funding. That approach would force the state’s colleges and universities to make further operational cuts, making it difficult for them to sustain current performance levels, let alone building capacity and expanding access.

Not happy with Gregoire’s plan, Purce and the other university presidents have proposed a “shared responsibility” approach to funding higher education over the next biennium. They want a gradual reinvestment from the state over the next seven years, reaching a 50-50 balance between state funding and tuition revenue by 2020.

The higher education presidents propose a $225 million reinvestment over the next biennium.

The new funding would allow the schools to sustain current enrollment levels, expand student access and support degree completion, as well as freezing tuition at current levels.

The recent cuts in higher education funding haven’t been fully realized, because as colleges and universities raised tuition rates, the state had to divert millions of other dollars into the State Need Grant. Keeping tuition flat would have the extra benefit in 2013-2015 of avoiding another $35 million hit to the program, which benefits low-income students.

Evergreen would receive $8.3 million of the proposed reinvestment funds, which it would use to support basic maintenance budget needs and sustaining quality academic programs. It would use the money to support the college’s science curriculum and establish a dedicated Veterans Center to coordinate services and provide a home on campus for student veterans.

Finding $225 million won’t be easy, on top of covering the deficit and the K-12 obligation. The task is more difficult given Gov.-elect Jay Inslee’s promise to balance the budget without new revenue.

Perhaps state lawmakers will find some workable middle ground between Gregoire’s budget and the presidents’ proposal. To not make progress means losing ground in the global competition for an educated and skilled workforce, especially in the high-tech and engineering fields.