State university administrators are keeping budget plans close to their vests while Washington House and Senate negotiators decide whether impending higher education cuts will be bad news or very bad news.
But students at Eastern Washington University weren’t about to let uncertainty stand in the way of a campus demonstration on Wednesday.
With the state facing a projected $9 billion deficit, student organizer Matthew Holmes said, “We understand the need for cuts. But we are trying to send a message to legislators that the budgets they’re talking about could severely hurt our ability to produce competent, competitive workers for the future.”
About 300 students and faculty turned out for the rally at EWU’s Pence Union Building to air their differences with the Legislature, which earlier this week unveiled two separate budget-cutting plans for the state’s colleges and universities.
The Senate plan envisions $513 million in cuts and keeps a 7 percent cap on any tuition increases. The House version cuts $683 million and raises the tuition cap to 10 percent. Complicating the higher education equation further is how the Legislature will allocate more than $800 million in federal stimulus dollars for Washington state.
“We are looking at an 18.5 to 22 percent reduction in funding,” EWU President Rodolfo Arévalo said in an interview with The Spokesman-Review on Tuesday.
“You can’t take that size of reductions in revenue without looking at reducing the work force,” Arévalo said.
He estimated cutting up to 100 positions, including about 50 vacant positions that would go unfilled.
Though Arévalo said any tuition hike would be partially offset by increases in federal aid, including Pell grants and tax credits, he fears EWU would lose students if programs that support them are cut.
Eastern, he said, has a tradition of attracting a much larger proportion of first-generation and economically challenged students who can least afford more obstacles to higher education.
Whitney Sylvester, a junior from Mercer Island, Wash., said she is able to attend EWU because of financial aid and a student loan.
Sylvester is concerned that cuts in programs will make it harder to graduate in four years. As it is, she will have to pay off $15,000 to $16,000 of student debt. If it took her five or six years to graduate, she said, she wouldn’t be able to afford a degree.
Education should be lawmakers’ No. 1 priority, Sylvester said.
“They wouldn’t be legislators if they didn’t have the opportunities in college that they did,” she said.
Though Washington currently limits tuition increases at state universities to 7 percent, student advocates such as Holmes, who is legislative liaison for the Associated Students of EWU, worry that lawmakers can easily raise that cap.
On Tuesday, TVW, the state’s public-affairs TV network, reported that the executive director of the Council of (University) Presidents asked the state Senate Budget Committee to allow universities to raise tuition by as much as 14 percent a year.
Terry Teale, the director, said the increase would cost students less than forcing them to attend school longer because they can’t get into the classes they need due to budget cuts.
On Wednesday, Raphael Guillory, EWU Faculty Organization vice president, said legislators must recognize that if the state has any hope of pulling out of the current economic slump, it must make an investment in the future.
“What you see here today,” Guillory said of the crowd of enthusiastic students in Cheney, “is the return on that investment.”