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Higher education takes a beating in proposed budget

The Associated Press
OLYMPIA, Wash. — Washington’s public colleges and universities face a bleak future under the budget approved by the state House: Double-digit tuition increases, fewer slots for Washington natives, and drastic program reductions are just a few of the money-saving measures under consideration. The House plan to help close the state’s $5 billion deficit cuts higher education more deeply than Gov. Chris Gregoire’s original budget, slashing $482 million, a blow that would come on top of several years of cuts and tuition increases. It would cut state support for higher education to the amount spent 20 years ago, when there were 32,000 fewer students at the six four-year colleges. Statistics show that college graduates experience lower unemployment and score higher-earning jobs than people without four-year degrees, and a college-educated labor force has historically been the driving force behind economic growth. Yet state lawmakers target higher education during rough budget years for a simple reason: “Because we can,” said Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, ranking Republican on the House Higher Education committee. While the state constitution protects K-12 spending because basic education is considered the state’s “paramount duty,” colleges and universities discretionary spending and therefore more vulnerable. “It’s insane,” Haler said. “Our whole approach is that we hope it doesn’t affect things, but we know that it’s going to.” Budget writers this year also had to live without $100.1 million in one-time federal stimulus money for higher education that partly protected the system in the current budget. That money runs out this fall. To make up for all the lost dollars, the budget includes provisions for 13 percent tuition increases at the University of Washington, Washington State University and Western Washington University. Freshman Chantelle Benicki chose Western Washington University, where she plans to pursue a teaching degree in art education, as an affordable alternative to private art schools. Scholarships and a student loan covered her first year. But with the tuition increases and most scholarship programs at her school being cut or vastly decreased, she doesn’t know how she’ll pay for the rest of her education. “Last year I didn’t qualify for very much financial aid, and I probably won’t qualify for much more this year,” she explained. “My parents can’t really pay for my entire college tuition out of pocket without being poor, pretty much, so that just means I’ll probably end up taking more loans than I’d like to for this upcoming year.” Taking out extra loans is not an attractive option as she looks ahead to an art teacher’s salary. Smaller schools would see hikes of 11.5 percent and students at community and technical colleges would pay 11 percent more. For the four-year schools, those are on top of consecutive 14 percent increases from the past two years; community colleges went up 7.5 percent. But those tuition increases would only recover about $379 million of the losses in state money, according to the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board. The University of Washington would lose $200 million for the 2011-2013 biennium, a 30 percent cut. Last year, students paid for about 55 percent of their education, while the state kicked in 45 percent; with the current proposal that balance would shift to 70-30. So the school is turning to some unpopular money-saving maneuvers, like accepting more out-of-state students, who pay almost three times as much for tuition. Next year’s freshman class will be about 30 percent nonresidents, 150 students more than last year, a move that has families statewide up in arms at the prospect that their children will be passed over for an outsider. “It’s not something we want to do,” said Randy Hodgins, the university’s vice president of external affairs. “It’s much better to have qualified kids from Washington, but you can’t lose half of the state budget and not have any negative implications.” Eastern Washington University will have seen state money go from $125 million four years ago to $71 million under the current budget proposal. Central Washington University will have gone from $123 million to $70 million, not counting $3.5 million covered by a 3 percent wage cut for employees. With the proposed $110 million cut to Washington State, the university will have lost half its state money since the beginning of the 2009-2011 biennium. In response, the school has cut several programs, including the Department of Theater and Dance and the Department of Community and Rural Sociology, and has eliminated German as a major. Four-year institutions aren’t the only ones feeling the heat. The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges estimates they’ll have to turn away 25,000 students if the budget cuts go through. While Haler sees the cuts as misguided, the House budget leaders feel they did a good job of balancing the cuts with tuition hikes and increased financial aid. “We’ve just cut $4.4 billion out of the state budget — you don’t do that without having an impact on people,” House Ways and Means chairman Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said, adding that the cuts are “not anything as dramatic as what we’ve cut in human services or in the low-income health care.” Haler said it’s unfortunate that House dynamics have set the budget up to have social services competing against higher education. “You’re chasing your tail — we don’t have people going to colleges, so now they’re going to need the social services,” he said. To help low- and middle-income students weather the tuition increases, the House budget would pump additional money from tuition paid by more affluent families into financial aid for lower-income students, although the budget also suspends some aid programs, including the state work study program. However, the increase in aid won’t meet the increased need; while the grant provides aid for about 70,000 students in Washington, nearly 22,000 eligible students were denied in the 2009-2010 school year. Families are eligible if they earn 70 percent or less of the median family income, or $54,500, a threshold that leaves many middle-income families in a quandary: they don’t qualify for state grants, but they can’t afford college all by themselves. But a bill by Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, would direct universities to reinvest more money from higher tuition back into increased financial aid and access for middle-class students. Carlyle’s Higher Education Opportunities Act would give state universities and colleges broad tuition-setting authority for the next four years, with legislative oversight, while expanding eligibility for the State Need Grant to include households with incomes of up to 125 percent of the median family income, or $96,000 for a family of four. It would also up the amount schools dedicate to financial aid from 3.5 percent of tuition revenue to 5 percent. That means $25 million more at the UW alone, he said. “We are passionately focused on reducing the negative affect of rising tuition on the middle class,” he said. “If we do this right, this will be the largest expansion of financial aid for the middle class in state history.” Carlyle said House lawmakers favor giving schools “unfettered” tuition control, but their counterparts in the Senate are still pushing to impose a limit of some kind. He expects his bill to pass the House in the next few days, and those details will be hashed out in ongoing budget negotiations. The House budget proposal passed 53-43 on Saturday, and a competing Senate proposal is expected to come out next week. Lawmakers are scrambling to finalize the 2011-2013 budget before session ends on April 24.
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