Avoid catastrophe: Don't cut Washington's higher-education funding anymore

Further cuts to Washington's higher-education system would be a huge mistake, write these leaders among Washington's public and private universities and community-college system. Education provides important opportunities as the state strives to recover from the recession.

By Ronald R. Thomas, Rodolfo Arévalo and Charlie Earl 

Special to The Times, December 8, 2009




H.G. Wells wrote in "The Outline of History" that "Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe." Washington's leaders will make decisions that affect that race when the Legislature convenes in January.

Despite severe economic challenges, colleges in Washington are doing a remarkable job of meeting the state's higher-education needs. Enrollment is up substantially at public baccalaureate institutions this fall, despite tuition increases of 14 percent. Private colleges, which many thought would see enrollment plummet in this economy, saw a healthy increase as well. And the state's community colleges are bursting at the seams with students seeking job training or starting on their way to a college degree. Students are brimming with hope, vitality and excitement about the opportunities a good education provides.

This success is occurring despite severe limitations on resources. State operating support for public institutions was reduced sharply in the budget enacted by the Legislature earlier this year. Independent colleges felt the squeeze through a drop in endowment income and a more difficult annual fundraising climate. While the state and federal governments both have increased investment in student aid, and institutions also are devoting more resources to help low- and moderate-income students pay the bill, it isn't enough; colleges are admitting more students with greater financial need than ever before.

That brings us to the state budget, which analysts now predict will be $2.6 billion out of balance by the end of the biennium in the middle of 2011. Some are already drawing a target — again — on higher-education funding. They say that their hands are tied, and look to colleges for reductions because investing in higher education is not constitutionally mandated.

Further cuts to higher education would be a huge mistake.

Colleges are already working with limited resources; additional cuts in operating support would make it increasingly difficult to offer the classes and support services students need. Slashing financial aid would force many students out of college and dash their best hope for getting the skills and knowledge they need to improve their lives and climb the economic ladder.

Higher education is vitally important not only for the individual but for the state. College-educated citizens are critical to the innovation we need to rise to economic recovery. Study after study shows that as people become more educated, they are less likely to need state services and more likely to be employed, pay more taxes and be more flexible workers. They are less likely to be on public assistance, and more likely to have better health, vote, give to charities and volunteer. In short, higher education can prevent a host of problems that taxpayers spend a lot of money trying to fix later.

Given the demonstrable benefits of higher education both to individuals and society, it's almost inconceivable that the state's students and colleges often end up taking the brunt of budget cuts rather than being a top priority for state support.

The state Legislature set a goal, by adopting the Higher Education Coordinating Board's master plan, of increasing college degree production at all levels by nearly 32,000 annually by 2018. Further cuts to higher education would make it highly unlikely that this goal can even be approached, and would deny opportunities to thousands of capable Washington students.

Education? Or catastrophe? We urge our leaders to back the winning horse in that race.

Rodolfo Arévalo is president of Eastern Washington University and chair of the Council of Presidents. Charlie Earl is executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. Ronald R. Thomas is president of University of Puget Sound and chair of the board of Independent Colleges of Washington.