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Colleges Are Running Out Of Room, Legislator Warns But Rosalia Republican Finds His Message Is A Lonely One

Several years from now, there might not be room in Washington’s public colleges for everyone who wants to enroll.

A state legislator on Tuesday tried to tell people about the problem, but only one person showed up to listen.

Rep. Larry Sheahan, R-Rosalia, said he needs the support of parents to win a fight in Olympia for more money for higher education.

He even scheduled a public forum during the Inland Northwest National College Fair in Spokane on Tuesday.

College officials from around the country were there. Students and parents showed up to get ideas about which colleges to attend.

No one seemed very interested in a problem that’s still some years away.

When one woman showed up, the lawmaker patiently explained this so-called access crisis. Ever-growing numbers of high school graduates are expected to flood admissions offices with applications in the next 15 years.

The woman listened politely for a few minutes, then excused herself. She said she needed to ask questions about financial aid for her son at another meeting next door.

For officials like Sheahan, that is the problem. Most parents worry about day-to-day concerns, not those in the future.

According to state forecasts, the number of high school graduates and adults expecting to attend public colleges and universities in Washington will grow by 37,000 new students by the year 2010.

Currently, the state enrolls 191,000 students, and the institutions are close to capacity.

If the state hopes to meet the public’s continuing expectation that classroom seats will be available, the Legislature will have to come up with more money.

“It is important for parents who care about higher education to say this is important,” Sheahan said.

Higher education has not fared well in Olympia in recent years. In 1985, public colleges and universities received 16.3 percent of the state general fund budget. That has dropped to 11 percent this year.

Sheahan said lawmakers have put a higher priority on social services and basic education.

Funding for prisons also has grown dramatically in that time.

As a result, the state’s colleges and universities are raising admission standards to be more selective. That trend is expected to continue.

Terry Flynn, the director of admissions at Washington State University, said the mean grade point average for students entering WSU has gone from 3.2 to 3.4 in the past several years.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo