A recent easing of the budget crisis facing Washington state is presenting legislators with an unexpected opportunity to both right a wrong and to invest in our state’s long-term economic health.
Washington’s public colleges and universities are being hollowed out from within due to steep state funding cutbacks, particularly in recent budgets. Washington invests less in higher education today than it did in 1989, yet our institutions are now serving thousands more students. This trajectory of free-falling state disinvestment is compromising access, raising class sizes, reducing course offerings, and creating serious hardships across Washington for students and their families.
As a trustee of Western Washington University, I have an up-close view of what the cuts have meant. Western’s funding has been cut in half over just the last four years, forcing the shuttering of entire degree programs, the elimination of over 100 course offerings and the loss of hundreds of jobs. And our students now pay nearly 70 percent of the cost of their education, up from 30 percent just 10 years ago. Tuition increases necessitated by the disinvestment of state support, make it harder and harder for middle class families to afford to send their children to college. The same is true for all of our higher education institutions.
And beyond that, this continued pattern of disproportionate cuts to higher education is damaging Washington’s ability to survive the recession and get on track for long-term economic viability. Our economy increasingly depends on a highly skilled and educated workforce. By 2018, Washington will have added 259,000 jobs requiring a post-secondary education – many of these in the technology and life sciences fields, two of our state’s largest economic engines (Georgetown Center, 2010).
If Washington can’t keep up with degree demand, we won’t be able to attract and retain growth-sector industries, creating a creeping, damaging effect throughout our entire economy. Our fiscal health and the opportunity for our children to obtain good jobs will be lost because higher education in this state has been diminished.
Yet despite all of this, legislators have continued to drastically and disproportionately slash funding to higher education. Now, even more cuts are on the table this year. The reality is that our universities, colleges and technical schools simply cannot handle any more cuts. It is time for the Legislature to acknowledge the danger to Washington’s economic future if we continue to cut higher education.
There is no doubt that legislators face difficult choices, but continuing to erode our higher education system is nothing more than shortsighted. And while I am very grateful to see that the recently proposed House higher education budget begins to reverse the trend and prioritize higher education – it still includes $30 million in cuts to four-year institutions alone. I am also very encouraged to see the House budget propose a $12 million investment in science, technology, engineering and math degree production. This is a critical investment for the technology and aerospace industries. Western and our other higher education institutions can play an important role in helping respond to the increased need for graduates with bachelor degrees in engineering and other STEM areas.
But the situation is clear. If our institutions are forced to take more cuts, the result will be increasingly limited access to higher education for Washington students, particularly the middle class, and a long-term blow to Washington businesses that rely on an educated workforce that we simply won’t be able to provide. I hope that our leaders in Olympia will make the right decisions this session, ones that will put us on track for economic recovery and long-term success.
Ralph Munro is a Trustee of Western Washington University, former Secretary of State and a former adviser to the White House.