Empty Seats But Full Coffers At Universities

Three of Washington’s four-year universities will have about $7 million extra to spend on technology, classroom equipment or teacher salaries this year because fewer students than expected enrolled.

The money is part of a significant budget increase the Legislature handed state universities last year to accommodate 2,300 additional students.

With both political parties anxious to appear supportive of higher education, legislators allotted about $4,000 apiece for the projected students.

Washington State University, Eastern Washington University and Western Washington University missed their enrollment targets by a combined 1,700 students - but not before collecting the state money.

However, the University of Washington, Central Washington University and Evergreen State College exceeded enrollment targets, according to the state Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Legislators are hearing a variety of explanations for the shortfall, from more students opting to take jobs to fewer out-of-state residents applying to Washington schools.

Some legislators, including Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, are considering reinstating enrollment minimums as a way of ensuring payment only for students the schools actually enroll.

Of the three schools not reaching their student targets, EWU had the largest enrollment shortfall. It now has about 850 fewer students than projected by the Legislature for this year.

The main WSU campus in Pullman and three branch campuses are about 760 students short of their combined targeted 1996-97 enrollment.

Western, in Bellingham, is about 86 students below its mark, according to state enrollment data.

The three schools don’t have to return what is, in effect, a bonus created by the Legislature when it set 1996-97 enrollments during its last session.

The money was set aside for instructional use, but that covers a wide area, university officials say.

EWU President Mark Drummond said the Legislature did the right thing last year by giving the schools more money than they had requested.

He and other school officials defend using the money, saying it will help maintain faculty quality, keep classrooms equipped and prepare the universities for anticipated student growth in the next few years.

“I know that in the next three years, we not only will have those 800 students back but will have an additional 900,” Drummond said after Friday’s EWU board of trustees meeting.

Going into the 1996 legislative session, school officials wanted only about 1,500 more enrollment slots than they had gotten the year before.

“The Legislature not only accepted the 1,500; it raised the number by 800 more,” said Tom Sykes, deputy budget director for the Higher Education Coordinating Board in Seattle. That agency is responsible for statewide higher education planning.

WSU officials wanted money for about 1,000 additional students. Legislators said the school could enroll 1,045 more students.

Having fallen short of previous years’ enrollment projections, EWU officials first indicated they weren’t ready for any more enrollment money. But the Legislature ended up adding money for 86 more EWU students anyway, said the university’s legislative liaison, George Durrie.

“It wasn’t like they were bending our elbows to take (those increases),” Durrie said. “We were all projecting some growth coming into this year.”

“I commend the Legislature for doing the right thing last time,” said Drummond.

“But in a way, the schools were set up for criticism,” he said, because the additional money was tied to enrollment numbers. And enrollments go through “yo-yo” ups and downs, he said.

Higher education analysts predict the state needs to prepare for 84,000 more college students by 2010 than it has now.

The state should be funding the four-year and community college systems now, not later, Drummond said.

“It’s not like free money,” Drummond said. “We’re also re-balancing for the last few years when state support for higher education wasn’t adequate.”

Others, including West, don’t believe the bulge in the high school pipeline will be as large as predicted.

“I tend to think that the 84,000-student figure is hyperbole, a way to drive more money into higher education,” said West, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

West said he hopes the lesson to be learned from the current enrollment glitch may be the need for the state to set clearer spending limits.

“Like we do with K-12, if the schools drop a certain number below the students we target, they ought to give that money back,” he said.

The state had such limits in the 1980s, but the Legislature removed them about five years ago.

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: EXTRA FUNDS Three state schools Washington State, Eastern Washington and Western Washington universities - missed their enrollment targets by a total of about 1,700 students - but not before collecting additional state money.

This sidebar appeared with the story: EXTRA FUNDS Three state schools Washington State, Eastern Washington and Western Washington universities - missed their enrollment targets by a total of about 1,700 students - but not before collecting additional state money.

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