By Elson S. Floyd
It’s become all too commonplace in our society to say in a time of crisis that we stand at a crossroad.
The reality for Washington’s higher education system, and the students, families and employers we serve, is that crossroad has long come and gone and with dramatic consequences.
At Washington State University, we have witnessed an astonishing 52 percent reduction to the institution’s state appropriation during this economic crisis, which has been only partially mitigated by an even more breathtaking 75 percent increase in tuition.
All of this has produced very real challenges to your land grant research university’s ability to deliver a quality education at an affordable price to help drive the state out of this economic valley.
But while there’s every temptation to mourn the opportunity lost, now is the time to reassess where we’re going and make plans for getting there. What’s done is done.
In this context, it can be said that Washington’s higher education sector experienced a watershed year of sorts in Olympia during the 2012 Legislative session. In the wake of unprecedented annual reductions to base funding, state colleges and universities were spared from further reductions to their operating budgets. I have no doubt that it will long be remembered as the decision that preserved the quality of higher education in our state at a time in which it had become most vulnerable.
Even so, the sharp decreases in base funding experienced during this economic downturn have posed a significant threat to our public universities, for which total funding was already third worst in the country before the economic downturn began.
These public institutions remain valuable research, educational and economic resources to our state. They continue to reflect the best our nation has to offer in scientific research and academic excellence.
And against all odds, Washington’s public baccalaureate institutions continue to perform at an exceptional level, delivering maximum value for the public investment. We produce more degrees per full-time student than any state in the nation. And while baccalaureate degree production has increased by 11 percent over the past decade, degree production in high demand fields has increased at more than three times that rate.
We also are home to the highest college graduation rates in the country and instructional costs that are no higher than they were 20 years ago.
So what’s changed? These institutions are serving 32,000 more students than we were 20 years ago on a state investment that’s actually smaller in real dollars. In 1989-91, state support for our public baccalaureate institutions totaled just over $1 billion. State support in the current two-year budget cycle is just under $1 billion. In between those two bookends you’ll find years of inflation and enrollment growth.
So while the cost of education has remained constant, the distribution of who pays for it most certainly has not. Every decline in state appropriation over that period has been matched by a corresponding increase in tuition. Just a decade ago state support made up 70 percent of instructional costs with student tuition making up the remaining 30 percent. As of this fall, that ratio will have officially flipped, with students and their families picking up the lion’s share.
Even with higher tuition, total funding per student has declined. It’s a trend that has put continued access to higher education at risk for students in our state and even threatened the very quality of the education that we provide.
At WSU we have fought to maintain the integrity of our degree programs by making major cuts to our administrative infrastructure and consolidating and reorganizing our academic programs. But continued reductions have put us on an unsustainable path to adequately supporting a globally competitive research institution. Continued double-digit tuition increases to our students and their families would quickly prove an unsustainable strategy for a public institution. It would send a message with an economically chilling effect on our state: that higher education in Washington has become unaffordable and unattainable.
The good news is there is reason to hope the worst may be behind us. In addition to sparing higher education from further cuts in 2012, the Legislature left whole the financial aid programs that support our students. It was a remarkable — even stunning — achievement considering the very difficult budgetary challenges legislators faced when the session began in early January.
Moreover, the Legislature’s decision recognized that higher education is a part of the solution to the long-term economic problems facing our society. Lawmakers recognized that our employers are thirsting for a highly-educated and well-trained workforce. Their budget reflects the critical importance a research university plays in protecting existing industries and creating new ones for the future. And it further recognized WSU’s credentials by enlisting the university’s help in bolstering the state’s aerospace industry by increasing engineering enrollments across our state, including at the University Center of North Puget Sound in Everett.
I think we can all agree the state of Washington has distinct advantages in aerospace and high technology, two industries that require employees with high levels of skill and training. In order to solidify and improve upon the advantages that Washington possesses, it will be necessary to invest in our most valuable resource — our home-grown talent.
But the onus isn’t just on the state. We know in these difficult times that we must develop new innovations allowing us to fulfill our mission in ways that enhance efficiency and productivity. And despite the challenges, we have never lost sight of our obligation to continue to move our institutions forward and to seek out opportunities to further our missions.
In July, WSU will launch its new Global Campus, which is aimed at fulfilling our land grant mission and our charge to deliver ever-increasing access to quality higher education. We have already significantly increased overall enrollment to record levels by deploying strategies designed to clear blockages on the student pathway to graduation. We have embarked on returning to technology to help increase opportunities for students to earn additional credits. And we’re refocusing critical student services to support the students who need them most.
As we move forward in this new environment, innovation, partnership and cooperation will be the keys to Washington’s future prosperity. With a renewed focus on the development of homegrown talent, Washington will flourish as a leader in aerospace, technology and health care.
To reach the goal of re-establishing a strong statewide economy, it will be necessary for business and industry, government and education to work collaboratively to envision a preferred future. That future must include a renewed investment in human potential through our system of higher education.
About the author
Elson S. Floyd is the president of Washington State University.