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National CrossTalk Summer 2002
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

4 of 4 Stories

Washington's Fiscal Storm
Political and economic tides have converged against public higher education

By Kay Mills
Olympia, Washington

Just as the book and movie "The Perfect Storm" depicted a series of maritime events that could never happen at once-but did, with disastrous consequences-so have the political and economic tides converged against public higher education in Washington State.

Consider:
  • For the first time, each of the state's six public four-year universities and 34 community colleges was overenrolled this past academic year and again this fall. Still more students are on the way as more people move into the state.

  • Washington's economy lags behind even the sagging national picture. In addition to the severe downturn after last year's terror attacks, the state's economy was also battered by the dot.com implosion, Boeing's layoffs, 2001's earthquake in the Puget Sound area, and devastating forest fires in the center of the state. Unemployment helps to create higher college enrollments as people seek job retraining or the college education they had put off.

  • A populist political mood has led voters to pass several ballot initiatives that limit state spending and reduce taxes. Washington has no state income tax, and this same populist spirit makes most politicians run from any proposals to change that. Several of the initiatives also have led to increased spending on elementary and secondary education, as well as on prisons, leaving higher education with less.
  • Last spring, these forces converged in Olympia, the state capital. Washington has a two-year budget cycle, so in 2001 the legislature had passed budgets for both the 2002 and 2003 fiscal years. Faced with a $1.5 billion deficit last spring, the legislature cut 4.8 percent, or $68 million, from higher education's $1.435 billion budget for 2003.

    That cut led to tuition increases of 12 percent at two-year community and technical colleges and 14 to 16 percent at the state universities. Higher education spending is still slightly higher than it was a year ago, but costs are higher and enrollments are increasing.

    Washington faces "such a discouraging (revenue) picture that I'm afraid the same thing is going to happen next year," said state Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles of Seattle, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee and also serves on the Ways and Means Committee.

    State economic forecasters say Washington's economy "appears to be nearing the end of the recession," but that bit of good news has done little to untie the hands of Governor Gary Locke and the legislature, who are confronting many demands for state spending.

    Marisol Villegas and Omar Torres, students at Eastern Washington University, in Cheney, are already feeling the pinch. Villegas, a junior whose parents are farm workers, works 12 hours a week at the university admissions office and hopes she can make her combination of this work-study job, plus loans, grants and scholarships, meet her growing expenses. "I apply for everything," she said, but added that "it's stressful having to find the money for food and books." Books for the fall semester cost Villegas $300.

    Torres, a senior from Bridgeport, Washington, also works in the admissions office. He, too, has a combination of scholarships and loans but knows that the tuition increase means he will not be able to afford extras like going out to eat or to the movies.

    Last year, tuition and mandatory fees at Eastern Washington were $2,964. This year, with the 14 percent tuition increase, they will be $3,357. In addition, students must pay a $105 "technology fee" and a health services fee of about $120 a year. "Students say they are nickled and dimed to death" said Daniel Pugh, EWU's dean of students.

    Students will take more part-time jobs and will borrow more, said Wayne Sparks, financial aid director at Washington State University, in Pullman, one of the state's two research universities (the other is the University of Washington, in Seattle). The average debt upon graduation from WSU is between $15,000 and $20,000, he said, adding that "if you have to pay back debt, you make different decisions-you may select a different career, you may not move out on your own as quickly or make a house payment as quickly, or donate to your alma mater."

    Governor Locke and legislators would like to increase access to public higher education because demand is growing as the college-age population increases. The state also wants to meet employers' needs for more graduates in high-demand fields, such as computer science. And the state higher education coordinating board would like to increase junior and senior enrollments because the state now ranks 46th in the nation in that category, based on data from the National Center for Educational Statistics. But the money is not there to do all these things.

    Last year, the universities and community colleges were overenrolled by 11,977 students-that is, there was no state funding for those students. On some campuses this led to fewer or larger class sections, as campus officials made cuts to accommodate the unsubsidized students.

    In the past, the state's need-based grant program was adjusted to match tuition increases, but that did not happen this year. Tuition at the two research universities rose by $622, but the grants increased only $438. "Promise" scholarships, which are based on both merit and need, were trimmed by $2.4 million.

    The financial squeeze means different things at different campuses.

    The legislature cut state support for the University of Washington, the state's flagship school, by $18.1 million last spring and authorized UW's Board of Regents to raise tuition by 16 percent to $4,167 for an in-state undergraduate, plus $399 in mandatory fees, for a total of $4,566. Even so, UW still faced a budget deficit and did not grant a planned two percent faculty pay raise.

    Sandra Silberstein, vice chair of the UW Faculty Senate, said that body had supported the pay raises, and failure to receive them has left a bitter taste. "Everybody's hurting, not just people in the humanities," who usually feel the pain before others closer to market scale, such as professors in the health sciences.

    Silberstein's own English department, which she described as "the poster child for poor salaries and people leaving," lost 11 faculty between 1998 and 2001, not counting retirements; two more departed last year. "It used to be we would lose people to private universities," she said. "Now we are just sliding so far behind that we are losing them to public universities as well." As a result of these departures, Silberstein said, the department now offers fewer courses and classes are larger.

    Vice Provost Harlan Patterson said that in general, University of Washington salaries are ten to 15 percent behind today's academic market. "In 1993, we were basically at market, maybe two to four percent behind," he said. "People were willing to give a discount for the wonders of the Pacific Northwest." But then came Initiative 601, limiting state spending, and the curve fell dramatically. That spending cut was never restored, even in good economic times.

    "If we don't figure out how to close the gap," Patterson said, the university will lose significant members of its academic team. "If you lose hope that you can work somewhere and accomplish something, then you can find some place where you find the hope quotient higher."

    After enrolling 5,600 freshmen a year ago-more than anticipated-UW took steps to restrict freshman enrollment this year. As of mid-October, first-year enrollment was 4,800.

    While none of the public four-year institutions officially raised admissions standards, at least three-UW, Washington State and Western Washington University-restricted the size of the entering freshman class, said Gary Benson of the higher education coordinating board. At UW, the high school grade point average for the top half of the freshman class rose from 3.6 to 3.8 this fall. Average SAT test scores were 1,250, up from 1,150 the year before. "There were applicants to the UW who would have been accepted in 2001 who were not accepted in 2002," Benson said. "Students with lower GPA or SAT test scores could still get in if they were above the minimum standards-they just had to have something else going for them."

    At the other end of the state, in Pullman, Washington State University took a cut of $16.6 million in state support, so its Board of Regents also raised tuition by 16 percent. Resident undergraduates are paying $571 more this fall than last, or $4,145 in tuition, plus a $375 "services and activities" fee, for a total of $4,520. As it did at the University of Washington, this increase comes on top of a 6.7 percent tuition hike the previous year.

    Like their colleagues at UW, Washington State faculty received no salary increase. Since salaries already lagged behind institutions that WSU considers to be its peers-places like the University of Illinois and Texas A&M-faculty morale has dipped, said Paul Whitney, chair of WSU's psychology department.

    When faculty leave, they might not be replaced. Whitney said his department is down by two positions. That affects class sizes. Typically, the introductory psychology class would consist of perhaps ten sections of 100 students each; now there are seven or eight sections, each with 125 students. "In larger classes, students get intimidated and don't ask questions. Class interaction is reduced," Whitney said. "You can't spend 30 minutes outside of class working through some issues with a student. Yet, when we talk to alumni, that one-on-one contact is what they remember that mattered."

    "We are losing the breadth of offerings to the students," WSU Provost Robert Bates said. "Having a range of offerings allows students to find their interests-the world opens up to them at the university. As we erode our ability to present a reasonable palette of offerings, we lose something that American education is all about."

    On its Pullman campus, WSU has reduced the size of the chemical engineering department in order to start a bioengineering major. It also has dropped majors in range management and in recreation and leisure studies, which could lead to jobs in athletic clubs and other recreational programs.

    Western Washington University, a popular campus perched above scenic Bellingham Bay, near the Canadian border, has been overenrolled since 1990. This fall, Western is holding new enrollment to about 2,400 out of concern about classroom space and, therefore, about quality. Last year Western had 11,265 FTEs (full-time equivalent students, the measuring stick for higher education enrollment), nearly 300 more than the state funded. Last spring the legislature cut Western's budget by $4.9 million and the Board of Trustees increased tuition by 14 percent, to $3,408.

    Western had been trying to increase faculty salaries by five percent a year but the budget cuts knocked that plan off course, said Robert G. Edie, vice president for external affairs. Still, the university was determined to give some raises, so all campus departments made reductions in order to provide faculty with a one percent pay raise. Last year university President Karen Morse also instituted a "soft freeze" on all hiring and equipment purchases.

    "The state was already struggling before 9/11," Morse explained. Her instincts told her that "we were going to have some hard times in Washington state," so she made cuts even before the legislature acted.

    Western Washington also is losing more faculty to other schools, with better pay scales, than in the past. Between 1990 and 1999, Western lost two or three professors a year, said Provost Andrew R. Bodman; but from 1999 to 2001, the loss was ten a year. Last year, seven of the ten went to major universities, with pay increases that averaged $20,000. "And they'd have a lighter teaching load and the opportunity to work with Ph.D. students," Bodman said.

    The other four-year schools in the state-Central Washington University, in Ellensburg, and Evergreen State College, in Olympia-also suffered budget cuts, and both increased tuition. Resident undergraduates at Central Washington now pay $3,498 in tuition and fees, up 13.9 percent from last year. At Evergreen, smallest of the four-year schools, in-state students now pay $3,440 in tuition, an increase of $416 over last year.

    The community college picture is much the same, and the two-year campuses must admit all students 18 and older, regardless of their academic background, on a first-come, first-served basis. Individual colleges determine how many students they can enroll. Students taking 15 credit hours at a Washington community or technical college are paying $1,983 this year.

    Last year, the two-year schools enrolled 9,400 more FTEs than they received state money for. "What you do when you have that situation is you have larger class sizes, you don't start new programs, you don't hire as many new faculty, you hire more part-time faculty," said Earl Hale, executive director of the state's Board for Community and Technical Colleges. Two-year colleges don't have enough staff members to work with many students who are receiving financial aid. "In policy terms, our system's position is that low tuition policies are the best form of financial aid," Hale said.

    Tacoma Community College is among the schools trying to combat a critical shortage of registered nurses. Washington has about 1,000 vacant nursing positions and ranks 32nd out of the 50 states in the supply of nurses. But lack of space and shortage of qualified faculty hamper efforts to improve the situation.

    At Tacoma, the nursing program is at capacity-60 students for each of the two years in the associate's degree program. The school accepts only one of every four applicants and does not have space for additional classes, said Susan Ford, chair of the nursing program. Faculty pay is also a problem. "Two-year nursing graduates make more money than part-time faculty," she said. "People with master's degrees are making less money than they would make outside in hospitals or other health-related jobs."

    "We are doing more distance education to try to handle the demand," Ford added. "But you can't do a clinical simulation of what to do when someone has just been told they are going to die. The reason people want nurses is that human interaction."

    Tougher admissions standards at the universities are making it difficult for some community college graduates to transfer to a four-year campus, said Michele L. Johnson, president of the Pierce College campus at Fort Steilacoom. "If they do get in, they can't get into their majors so they are taking (other) courses, biding their time, and it's taking longer to graduate."

    The lack of a state income tax, combined with several ballot initiatives over the last ten years, has curbed government spending in Washington. In 1993, voters passed Initiative 601, requiring that General Fund spending not exceed the combined average state population and inflation growth for the previous three years. The measure does not take into account the fact that caseloads and costs in some programs are growing faster than population and inflation.

    In 2000, voters approved Initiative 728, requiring additional local school funding, and Initiative 732, which mandated cost-of-living increases for elementary, secondary and community and technical college teachers but not for faculty at four-year schools. Anti-crime measures passed in the late 1980s and early '90s doubled prison spending. The combination of all of these initiatives has resulted in less money for the state's public four-year colleges and universities.

    A year or so ago, Bill Gates, Sr. (not only the father of the Microsoft titan but also a civic leader and University of Washington regent) spoke at a luncheon about the threats to higher education and to state productivity. Former governors Daniel J. Evans, a Republican, and Booth Gardner, a Democrat, heard Gates and met the next day to try to start doing something about increasing both the operating and capital budgets for public higher education. They have formed the Higher Education Leadership Project, and they plan to commission a study comparing higher education in Washington with that in other states and evaluating its efficiency.

    Said Gardner, who was governor from 1985 to 1992, "It will be done by an outside source-not people in higher education. Then when we hit the legislature we'll hear their comments and we can say, 'Yes, we're weak in that area and we're addressing that, but here's where these outside sources say we are meeting national norms or surpassing them.'"

    Evans and Gardner also want to find a new way to pay for campus construction and maintenance. Money for repairs now comes from the schools' operating budgets, so they "rob the area where they need it the most-instruction-to keep up with maintenance," Gardner said. They also are seeking a guaranteed source of operating funds. "I don't like having separate funds for everything," said Evans, who was governor from 1965 to 1977 and later president of Evergreen State College. But he implied that since everyone else is doing that, higher education might need to do it, too.

    Washington has had "almost eerily regular recessions starting in every year ending in zero since 1960," Evans said. The state would come out of these recessions in the middle of each decade, then have good years toward the end of the decade. "In past years, that's when higher education got well," Evans said. "Until now."

    Governor Gary Locke also has named a commission, headed by Bill Gates, Sr., to look at what many people in the state consider to be an antiquated tax structure. That report is due November 30.

    Educators and politicians alike say that higher education must do a better job of presenting its case in Olympia. Western Washington University's Robert Edie, who was the state senate budget director in the 1980s and later a University of Washington lobbyist, said changing demographics, the importance of technology and the need for job retraining are powerful trends that lead him to be "bullish on the future of higher education" in the state. "Our job is to stop whining and learn how to ride these trends."

    Too many politicians do not understand what an economic driver the University of Washington and other schools are, said Senator Kohl-Welles, adding that too many members of the public think that tuition alone pays for higher education. "I don't want to cut enrollment" to get people's attention, she added. "When I mentioned that at the Democratic caucus, people blanched and said, 'but my son is about to start college.' People aren't going to know what happens to higher education until their kids can't get in."

    Representative Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, of Seattle, who chairs the higher education committee in the state house of representatives, said, "we have not done a good job of telling the public how we fund higher education and what higher education contributes to the state." If the situation is not corrected, she added, low-income and minority students will be hurt because, too often, they are the ones not well enough prepared for college. "Now, if you are requiring a 2.5 GPA and higher, you are eliminating people who may have potential but don't have the background."

    Washington's fiscal storm seems to be far from abating. Said the University of Washington's Sandra Silberstein, "Where are we in this national tax revolt? What arguments do you make to the citizenry about the importance of higher education? Having an educated citizenry is the only thing that protects democracy. Is that too difficult an argument to make? Are we trapped into talking only about economics?"

    Professors and administrators repeatedly cited the economic argument-that higher education helps fuel growth, especially in the technological fields in which the State of Washington has been a leader. But they feel the public does not understand that role and is not willing to pay for it.

    "This financial situation is choking the economic future of the state," said Paul Whitney, the Washington State University psychology professor. "If the state wants the average job to be a $7.50-an-hour job at the mall and the state revenues to be what taxes are paid on that income, that's one thing. We can become Mississippi if we want to, but I don't think we want to."


    Former Los Angeles Times editorial writer Kay Mills is the author of four books, including one on the federal Head Start program.

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