November 20, 2008 in City

Higher education cuts of 20 percent could cancel classes, shrink enrollment

By The Spokesman-Review

As the state’s budget crisis worsens, Washington’s colleges and universities are being told to plan for $600 million in cuts over the next two years, a loss that would mean program cuts, layoffs and enrollment reductions.

“We’re just asking them to prepare for us a plan that they could use to reach a 20 percent cut,” said Glenn Kuper, spokesman for the state’s Office of Financial Management. “We don’t know yet how all the cuts are going to be apportioned out, but we want to have those options in front of us.

“Twenty percent is a rough estimate of what the final cut could be.”

The schools will have to come up with their proposals fast. Gov. Chris Gregoire intends to roll out her 2009-2011 budget proposal the week of Dec. 15.

Eastern Washington University President Rodolfo Arevalo said the university had been preparing for budget cuts of 5 percent to 7 percent with a “soft freeze” on hiring, travel reductions and other steps. Cutting 20 percent would “eat at the core of the university” and could not be accomplished without layoffs, Arevalo said.

Community Colleges of Spokane already cut 2 percent of its budget this year, and Chancellor Gary Livingston said he expects to be asked to make another 2 percent reduction before the year’s out – for a total of $3 million.

An additional 20 percent cut – about $12 million over the next two years – would mean eliminating programs. Waiting lists would grow for popular programs such as nursing and probably for some basic courses students need before transferring to four-year schools.

The cuts would come at a time when community colleges are increasingly vital to young students from middle-income families struggling with education costs; middle-aged workers forced to change careers; and immigrants learning English. Colleges also expect to see more soldiers tapping into the GI Bill.

“It’s the worst time, given the economic downturn,” Livingston said. “It’s going to be hard for the unemployed to get back into the work force without new training and skills, and that equates to higher education.”

Prioritizing programs

Colleges in many states are facing cuts and Washington State University is probably better prepared than others to weather the reductions, said President Elson Floyd. More than a year ago, WSU started an intensive examination of its course offerings, with an eye toward eliminating some majors while putting a greater emphasis on others.

“We have been on this journey a long time,” Floyd said. “We now have a better sense of what our academic priorities are.”

Among other money saving measures, Floyd has filled only necessary positions and canceled the Christmas parties WSU normally hosts for donors and other supporters.

But while Floyd noted that the university has already decided to drop some courses next year, associate executive vice president Larry James confirmed that many of those classes have not been taught for years and cutting the others will result in little savings.

Nothing the university has done so far was meant to prepare for a 20 percent cut, which would be “very disruptive and disastrous,” said Barry Swanson, executive secretary of the WSU Faculty Senate and a food sciences professor.

Swanson said some faculty have talked informally about taking 5 percent wage reductions if they would help prevent layoffs. “I don’t know how serious they are at this point,” he said. “There obviously would be a lot of discussion about that” before it could be implemented.

Floyd would not speculate on what steps might be needed, saying no one will know for certain about the depths of cuts needed until the Legislature approves a budget. He hopes it will be far less than 20 percent. But Livingston said he sees little way out. What had been a worst-case scenario could become reality, he said.

Vulnerable area

Virtually all state agencies are being asked to write lists for budget cuts, said Kuper, of the state’s Office of Financial Management. But much state spending isn’t discretionary.

K-12 schools are protected by the Washington state Constitution, which declares basic education the state’s “paramount duty.” In fact, school districts have been hoping for a significant boost in state funding and have a pending lawsuit that could eventually force the matter.

Some medical and social service spending is mandatory as well. And prisons are difficult to substantially cut.

“Unfortunately for higher ed, they’re one of the vulnerable areas of the budget where there is flexibility,” Kuper said.

Universities do have other sources of cash, such as tuition and federal grants, but most of their money comes from the state.

The 20 percent request – $600 million in cuts out of a roughly $3.3 billion two-year budget – was prepared prior to Wednesday’s announcement that state revenue will be much less than expected. The weak economy means the state will collect $5.1 billion less than anticipated over the next 2 1/2 years, the state’s chief revenue economist predicted Wednesday.

Kuper said it’s unclear whether the list of cuts could grow more in the wake of the bleaker forecast.

“We want to be careful not to do too much to higher ed because the value is so great,” he said. “We’re going to have to look real hard at everything and see what we can afford.”

Kuper said state budget officials know that demand for spots at colleges frequently rises during economic downturns. Laid-off workers often go back to school, and current students opt to stay in school longer.

But expanding the slots at colleges now “just may be something we can’t afford,” he said.

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