SEATTLE - Washington parents who dream of sending their children to college someday probably are worrying about skyrocketing tuition. But lawmakers and university officials say they should turn their focus instead to the question of whether their kids will even get into a state university.
Washington state already is among the states with the fewest slots for undergraduate students at its public universities, as a percentage of its state population.
Of the 14,000 Washington high school students who graduated in 2009 with at least a 3.5 grade point average, more than 3,000 enrolled in out-of-state schools, said Mike Reilly, executive director of the Council of Presidents, a group of the presidents of Washington’s six public four-year schools.
“We have 6,000 or so of our best high school graduates leave the state,” Reilly said. Some are leaving to go to Stanford or MIT, but others just lost out in the competition for in-state schools.
The state Office of Financial Management reports that every year more than 1,000 students don’t get accepted to any state university and decide not to go to college.
With the state facing a steep budget shortfall, student access to a bachelor’s degree in Washington may get even scarcer, university officials say.
Because they cannot put off admissions decisions until the Legislature decides what to cut, state universities are planning to enroll fewer in-state students as freshmen next fall. They also will be offering fewer courses, which may make it more challenging for existing students to graduate.
If the Legislature takes direction on the higher education budget from the governor’s proposal, access to college could continue to tighten, said Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard.
The governor has said higher education would be cut another 4 percent over the next two years if her plan is followed, Shepard believes the real number is close to 16 percent, if you take into consideration proposed employee pay cuts that may not be possible under union contracts.
“Has the state decided it’s no longer interested in being involved in the business of higher education,” Shepard asked.
Reilly is more blunt.
“When tuition is used to supplant state support in higher education and that state support gets shifted to pay for other areas of government, student tuition is paying for the growth in spending in state government,” Reilly said. “What kind of public policy is that?”
Although most government officials seem committed to keeping state financial aid steady – including Gov. Chris Gregoire – the economic downturn combined with tuition increases is making college tuition a stretch for some middle class families.
Washington state tuition has been going up rapidly, but it’s still a bargain compared to California, New Jersey, Massachusetts and the other “global challenge states” that officials say the Evergreen state competes with for business, jobs and academic achievement.