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?
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. This year, despite furious lobbying efforts, student causes are likely to get walloped.
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. Washington’s college students and their families already have absorbed double-digit tuition jumps. Tuition is sure to go up even more this year.
“When budget cuts hit, we’re going to be bearing the brunt of the blow,” said Evan Smith, a UW sophomore who has traveled to Olympia seven times this year, and testified before both the House and the Senate higher-education committees. Students fear that, if the quality of their schools spirals downhill, their education won’t prepare them for the future.
So many student groups this year are keeping an uneasy alliance with lawmakers who want to give tuition-setting authority to the institutions. Washington is one of a handful of states where the Legislature sets tuition.
Historically, student groups have opposed letting regents and trustees have control of tuition increases, said Ben 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 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. I’ve been really impressed with how realistic they’ve been.”
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 the Legislature approves the level of additional cuts being proposed this session, the state will have cut higher-education funding by 50 percent since 2008.
College administrators say they’ve mitigated impacts by cutting support services, paring back administrators, eliminating low-enrollment programs, dropping teaching assistants and reorganizing departments. But some students say the state’s schools already are losing their edge.
Seven Eastern Washington University students who came to Olympia this month say more professors are using multiple-choice tests because class sizes are so large that professors don’t have time to grade essay questions.