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. Washington State University boosters handed out ice cream.
The mood was more somber, however, in meetings and a House hearing, where leaders of Washington’s public colleges repeated a grim mantra: Proposed state budget cuts would 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 eight to 10 years,” warned Elson Floyd, WSU president.
The university has shifted $10 million in spending just to try to blunt 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 faculty and staff.
Under Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed 12 percent budget cut or the state Senate’s 18 percent cut, he said, WSU would accept fewer students, have larger classes and employ fewer faculty members, staff and researchers. It would offer fewer services statewide and 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 raise tuition by 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, Floyd 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 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.
•Creating more opportunities for high school students to take college classes.
•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.
The college presidents said they’re trying to find as much savings as possible.
“I think all of us are hoping that it’ll be 12 (percent cuts),” Floyd said, “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.”