by Pia K. Hansen
When Governor Gary Locke released a budget proposal that included "a $1.25 billion problem" back in December, state agencies of all kinds braced for the worst as they waited for their funding to be slashed. Washington's economy was still reeling from the effects of September 11, and from major employers like Boeing fleeing. Having already vowed not to raise taxes to balance the budget, it was clear that Locke had no choice but to get out the red pen. As many as 30 programs -- everything from a youth camp to the state library -- were eliminated, and 440 full-time equivalent state personnel positions were cut. And Locke, who likes to be referred to as the education governor, also cut the higher education sector by $54 million.
Though the budget isn't finalized yet, most four-year institutions are anticipating a five percent budget cut, and there are few places where it's going to hurt more than at Eastern Washington University.
"I think it's pretty clear that the governor's strongest support for education has manifested itself in the K-12 system," says EWU President Stephen Jordan. "We understand the state's problems, and we expect to participate like everyone else. But we also think the legislature should look at what we have accomplished. The people at EWU should be rewarded for that."
It wasn't that long ago that EWU was fighting tooth and nail to simply stay an independent institution. Years of dwindling enrollment had left the university hundreds of students short of its enrollment goal in 1998, when new leadership took the reins. Since then, things have turned around in Cheney.
"The legislature told us to refocus on campus and get our enrollment numbers up. Frankly, I think they are surprised by the speed with which we did that," says Jordan, who took office as EWU's president in July 1998. "We've done what they told us to do, and more. We happen to be over our enrollment goal by more students than any of the other four-year institutions."
With full dorms and waiting lists for many classes, there are now 8,594 students enrolled at Eastern -- 338 more than at the same time last year.
"That's a number that's roughly 450 over the appropriation level," says Jordan. "Those 450 students over the appropriation level equal $2.4 million coming from the state that we are not getting."
To ease the university's pain, Locke has given EWU and all the other state universities free range to raise tuition as much as they'd like.
But a five percent cut in state funding doesn't equal a five percent tuition increase -- students are going to have to cough up more if administrators choose to make up the entire shortfall via higher tuition.
"To offset a five percent cut, we'd have to raise tuition by 15 percent," says Jordan. Is he willing to do that?
"No, but students are not going to escape the impact of these cuts. It hurts a lot, and I'm saying this for all the state institutions."
The proposed budget cuts come at an exceptionally bad time for many state colleges, since enrollment has been increasing across the board. When the bottom falls out of the economy, many turn to higher education to better their odds in the work place. At Spokane Community Colleges -- two-year schools that provide a variety of vocational, liberal arts, technical and basic training programs for more than 45,000 students each year -- enrollment is up as well.
"This supports a long-term trend that in time of economic downturn, people turn to community colleges for retraining or additional training," says Mary Harnetiaux, spokeswoman for CCS. "In fact, a projection done at the start of the school year showed us finishing the 2001-02 academic year 550 full-time-equivalent students over our state-funded allocation. Now it looks like we will finish 576 FTEs over our state-funded allocation." CCS will escape this round of cuts with the smallest budget reduction, losing three percent of its funding -- but it'll still have to plan for leaner times.
"Given the uncertain budget situation, we are beginning to develop a process for identifying a base budget so we are all working from the same page when planning for possible cuts," says Harnetiaux. "One way or the other, we'd like to have a variety of budget responses prepared, depending on how the legislative session goes."
Washington State University is following the same route. When Locke announced the five percent, or $10.5 million, cut in that university's general appropriations budget, WSU President V. Lane Rawlins announced immediately that WSU may be forced to consider tuition increases and restricting enrollment to maintain a quality education for its students.
"The governor's budget will give us some challenges, but it will not deter us from our key focus: providing the best possible undergraduate experience," said Rawlins in a written statement. "We will begin immediate discussions with regents, students, faculty and staff concerning the budget reductions and possible tuition increases."
The general increase in enrollment, combined with a decrease in funding, eventually may cause the state colleges to reach a breaking point.
"We've heard that the worst isn't over yet, that there may be more cuts to come in the next biennium. Eventually, we will get to a point where we can't take any more enrollment," says Jordan, who's uncertain as to how much legislative support the university can rally to oppose the budget cuts.
During past elections, teachers' unions and other supporters of elementary education have successfully campaigned for ballot initiatives that allocate state funds for reduction of class sizes and for permanent cost-of-living increases for teachers. But Jordan is reluctant to endorse the idea of putting a higher ed initiative on a future statewide ballot to secure better funding for higher education.
"We made a conscious decision not to be involved in these last initiatives, because we believe seeking funding by initiative is bad public policy," says Jordan. "But we may reach a point where we'll have to do the same thing."
Partnering up on the cost-of-living initiative that passed in the fall of 2000 is paying off for the faculty at community colleges, however.
"The faculty there will get a 3.6 percent cost-of-living increase, where our faculty will get 2.2 percent," says Jordan. "You just have to ask yourself what kind of a message that's sending to our faculty."
Aside from the immediate budgetary pain felt at the state colleges, Jordan says the state of Washington needs to address some much larger issues in its four-year education sector. "The state ranks 46th in the nation in total access to bachelor programs," he explains. "But we are fifth in the nation when it comes to consumption of these four-year graduates. The economy is requiring us to hire these people, yet we don't produce them."
Washington traditionally has a large two-year higher education sector -- with some AA graduates eventually transferring to a four-year school. One way four-year schools may begin to limit their intake of students is by making it tougher for these transfer students to get in. The University of Washington, for instance, only accepts transfer students who already have completed an AA degree.
"We don't think that's fair to the students," says Jordan. "We depend on transfer students. But we've found that between 40 and 60 percent of them transfer without an AA degree and without having completed the general university requirements (GURs) in math and English." Essentially, these students backlog the system, because they force the four-year school to bring them up to par by providing lower-level college level classes usually filled with underclassmen.
"We are looking at a policy change that may say you have to complete at least your general university requirements before you can transfer to Eastern," says Jordan. "Maybe we'll give first priority to transfer students with an AA degree, second priority to those with completed GURs and third priority to everyone else."
For now, EWU is preparing budget options and adopting the wait-and-see approach of the other state schools. Jordan says he's uncertain about the four-year sector's ability to garner significant legislative support to ward off or at least limit the proposed budget cuts. "That," he says, "is going to be a real problem."
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