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News >  Education

Washington colleges brace for potential 15% cut in state funding

UPDATED: Fri., May 15, 2020

A large sculpture of a cougar wears a face mask at dusk on Friday, April 17, 2020, outside Washington State University’s Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Geoff Crimmins / AP)
A large sculpture of a cougar wears a face mask at dusk on Friday, April 17, 2020, outside Washington State University’s Martin Stadium in Pullman. (Geoff Crimmins / AP)

Washington’s public colleges and universities, already taking financial hits from the COVID-19 pandemic, may have to contend with a 15% reduction in state funding in the next fiscal year – a move that could cost jobs and academic programs.

With the state facing a projected $7 billion hole in revenue through the 2023 fiscal year, Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday ordered state agencies to plan for some $1.9 billion in budget cuts. Agencies also were told to freeze hiring, halt equipment purchases and consider ways to shrink, postpone or eliminate programs.

Those agencies include public colleges and universities, which are being asked to find a total of $310 million in savings. Next to tuition, state funding is one of the primary sources of revenue for public higher education institutions.

Washington State University’s target is $37.2 million, while Eastern Washington University’s is about $10 million, according to spokespeople for those institutions.

For the Community Colleges of Spokane – the district that includes Spokane Community College and Spokane Falls Community College – a 15% cut would mean a loss of about $11 million.

In a statement Friday, CCS Chancellor Christine Johnson said a cut of that magnitude “would have a devastating impact on the most vulnerable students and families we serve – 360,000 community college students across Washington – and the equity damage to all these students would take decades to repair.”

Johnson said community colleges play an essential role in the economy, and she hopes state leaders won’t require cuts of 15%. Agency proposals for meeting that target are due by June 1, but the amounts of money they ultimately get will be decided by the Legislature.

“We cannot yet quantify where or how we would meet this severe of a budget cut,” Johnson said, “because we are just beginning a conversation across our community college district to understand how we could make this huge of a budget cut without crippling our ability to meet our mission.”

Some EWU employees already have been laid off or furloughed as fewer students are living on the Cheney campus and using its dining facilities.

EWU spokesman Dave Meany said school officials would work on a long-term plan to meet the state’s budget target over the coming weeks.

During a video question-and-answer session Friday morning, WSU President Kirk Schulz said administrators are gathering ideas and working on a plan as well.

“I want to emphasize that we’ve not made decisions on what we’re going to use and how we’re going to get to any sort of budgetary targets,” Schulz said. “We’ll be inclusive in our decision making.”

Schulz did not rule out the possibility of employee furloughs, as some other universities have begun doing in response to the pandemic. He said he hopes to maintain a safe educational environment while preserving as many jobs as possible, noting that WSU is the largest employer in Pullman.

“You can’t take a budgetary reduction like the state is asking us to do without affecting people, services and what we’re able to do,” Schulz said. “And we want to make sure we minimize the impact on our students, and minimize the impact on a student’s ability to come to WSU, study what they want to and move through in a timely way towards their degree.”

WSU spokesman Phil Weiler noted that some schools may ultimately see losses of less than 15%, describing the governor’s order as a “budget exercise.”

Higher education institutions across the country are receiving billions of dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act that Congress passed in late March. But many school officials say that assistance won’t make up for all the money they’ve lost due to the pandemic.

Some schools have given refunds for tuition, room and board, and other fees. Officials also worry about potential declines in enrollment due to the pandemic.

WSU, Whitworth University, Gonzaga University and the Community Colleges of Spokane each have announced they will attempt to reopen their campuses and resume face-to-face instruction in the fall after courses were moved online due to COVID-19.

EWU has said it will take an “online first, maximum flexibility” approach, maintaining the ability to switch between online and in-person formats.

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