OLYMPIA – It’s a rhetorical question, but when student Jordan Johnston has the chance, he asks it anyway:
How will the state get out of the economic doldrums if higher-education funding continues to be slashed?
State Rep. Susan Fagan, who has slipped away from the floor of the state House for an impromptu meeting with seven Eastern Washington University students, listens sympathetically to Johnston’s pitch. Still, with the state facing a nearly $5 billion budget shortfall, she has little hope to offer. “Times are tough,” the Pullman Republican says.
On the other side of the ornate, marbled lobby of the Capitol building, six University of Washington students make a last-ditch effort to save Senate Bill 5795, which would provide child care for college students with children.
The students have just learned that Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, may oppose the measure. They spot the lawmaker as he is about to enter the Senate chambers.
UW students Ben Henry and Quinn Majeski make the case for supporting the measure, and Zarelli seems supportive. But the scramble is futile; the 5 p.m. deadline for passage ticks by. The bill appears to be dead.
Every spring in Washington, college students are drafted to become lobbyists for higher education causes in Olympia. The Washington Student Association is the only such association in the country that uses students, and not a paid legislative director, to lobby the Legislature.
Funds not protected
Legislators in both parties agree that a robust system of higher education can help the state get out of the economic doldrums. Yet, college and university funding is expected to be one of the biggest targets.
Unlike K-12 funding, higher education money is not protected by the state constitution. Lawmakers justify the cuts by noting that the schools can raise revenue through tuition increases.
Washington is one of a handful of states where the Legislature sets tuition.
One bill would give colleges and universities unlimited tuition-setting authority for four years. Another, based on the work of a task force formed by Gregoire, would give colleges and universities more-limited authority.
Historically, student groups have opposed letting regents and trustees have control of tuition increases, said Henry, vice president of UW’s graduate and professional student senate. “These are things we would have dismissed out of hand” in previous years, he said. Now, “the tone of students is acquiescence.”
Students this year “are very cognizant and realistic of the budget environment,” said state Sen. Rodney Tom, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee. “They do understand there’s a trade-off – we can have lower tuition, but quality goes out the door.”
Still, giving tuition-setting authority to the institutions is troubling to students because they believe they cannot lobby regents, who are appointed by the governor, as effectively as they can lobby their elected representatives, who can be voted out of office.
If schools gain control over their tuitions, “there’s no oversight, and not much predictability for students,” said Sarah Reyneveld, a UW law student and president of the student senate. “How are students supposed to plan?”
‘Paying more for less’
Cutbacks have hit hard at EWU, a school of about 10,000 students. Many students have jobs that increasingly clash with a smaller slate of class offerings. Students say they have to remain in school another quarter – or even another year – to finish their degrees.
Seven EWU students who came to Olympia last week say more professors are using multiple-choice tests because class sizes are so large that professors don’t have time to grade essay questions.
“It’s a different school,” EWU senior Nathan Bouscal said of the cuts. “We’re paying more for less.”
Washington’s legions of student activists are tackling an issue with few good solutions.
“Both legislators and regents have our best interests in mind, but their hands are tied because no one wants to raise taxes,” said UW’s Adam Sherman.