OLYMPIA – If you didn’t know better, it would have looked like a celebration.
College marching bands and cheerleaders crammed into the state capitol rotunda Tuesday, grinning and blasting out fight songs. Team mascots high-fived – and sometimes chased – lobbyists and lawmakers. And Washington State University boosters handed out lots of ice cream.
The mood was much more somber, however, in meetings and a House hearing, where the leaders of Washington’s public colleges repeated a grim mantra: that proposed state budget cuts will mean dramatic changes at the campuses that could be an engine for recovery.
After years of improvements, the proposed 12 percent to 18 percent state cuts would “turn back the hand of time in our state 8-10 years,” warned Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University.
The university has shifted $10 million in spending just to try to blunt budget cuts through June, he said. Administrative jobs are going unfilled. Travel’s been cut, as has discretionary spending. The college is trying to get approval for early-retirement programs for both faculty and staff.
Under Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed 12 percent budget cut or the state Senate’s 18 percent, he said, WSU would accept fewer students, have larger classes and fewer faculty members, staff and researchers. It would offer fewer services statewide, fewer degrees and getting a degree would take longer.
“Now is the time for you to continue the considerable investment that you have made,” Floyd told lawmakers. “It is shortsighted for us to waver from those commitments.”
“Higher ed is part of the solution, not part of the problem,” echoed Bruce Shepard, president of Western Washington University.
The state’s four-year schools can increase tuition up to 7 percent a year, and some lawmakers are clearly interested in offsetting the budget cuts with larger tuition increases. But Floyd and other presidents are cautioning against making college harder to afford. The same economic crisis that’s hurt the state budget is hurting students and their families, he said.
“And shame on us when we get to a point at which we are pricing students and their families out of higher education,” he said.
Lawmakers are proposing a variety of bills intended to help. Among them:
•streamlining existing financial aid programs to make them easier to navigate,
•stressing high-demand training at colleges,
•expanding internships, work-study and other training programs,
•boosting the opportunity for high school students to take college classes while still in high school,
•and sharply expanding the use of online learning.
Rural areas, in particular, are driving a surging demand for online courses, said Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.
“They’re going to have less money, there’s no question about it,” said Rep. Deb Wallace, D-Vancouver. “I think they’re already making a lot of good decisions to get the most mileage out of their dollars.”
The college presidents said they’re trying to find as much savings as possible. Asked if they’re getting a read from lawmakers on what percentage the cuts are likely to be, Floyd said “I think all of us are hoping that it’ll be 12 (percent), and we’re preparing for 18.”
Shepard said that Western has been soliciting suggestions for savings on a Web page it put up. Within two days, he said, people had contributed 150 ideas. But none, he suggested, are anywhere close to undoing the proposed cuts.
“They are things like printing final exams on both sides of the paper,” he said. “And that’s not going to find us 30 million dollars.”