College crunch has candidates’ notice

OLYMPIA – When the next governor takes office in January, he or she will inherit a conundrum in higher education: more public universities are closing the door to applicants as rising numbers of prospective students are knocking to get in.

The University of Washington and Washington State University are cutting the number of new admissions in the next few years because they say the state isn’t paying its share of the tab. College leaders say they have enrolled 1,700 more students than the state pays for.

With state officials bracing for a predicted $1 billion budget shortfall next year and an expected record number of high school graduates in 2010, the situation will likely worsen before improving.

How to ease the strain of this supply-and-demand problem while still satisfying industry’s hunger for an educated and homegrown labor force is stirring varied approaches from the three most-prominent gubernatorial candidates.

Democrats Christine Gregoire and Ron Sims say a new four-year college is likely needed in the future but differ on how to deal with the immediate admission pressures. Republican Dino Rossi questions whether a new university can be funded and filled, and contends a robust economy would calm much of the angst about enrollment.

Where Gregoire and Rossi are moderate in tone and cautious with their ideas, Sims is demonstrative in his analysis and daring with his fix.

“We knew this day of reckoning would come,” he said. “The public is concerned, but (elected officials) are lagging behind. We’ve got to keep the doors wide open.”

Last week, Gregoire, the state attorney general for 12 years, released her plan for improving public education from kindergarten through college. Sims and Rossi may release proposals later this summer.

Gregoire’s “Making the Grade” pledges to strengthen vocational programs and step up retraining of skilled workers who have lost jobs in the last three years. She wants to increase the number of students in fields where demand is high, such as computer science and biotechnology. She said she would turn to corporations waiting to hire graduates, getting their help in paying for classroom slots.

Gregoire says two- and four-year schools must operate more efficiently with state dollars they receive. She also suggests creating rules to ensure students don’t waste time amassing credits that don’t count toward graduation or aren’t accepted by another college.

A major tenet of Gregoire’s approach is developing a tuition policy.

“We have to start talking about what is the true cost of college and quit spreading this myth that the tuition covers the cost,” she said.

She envisions students paying fees – and receiving aid – in accord with their financial ability. No longer would it be one price fits all.

“We must achieve this balance in a way that enables increased, affordable access to higher education,” she said.

For King County Executive Sims, the answer lies in overhauling the tax system.

“You’ve got to have tax reform to have a robust higher education system,” he said.

He proposes to lower property taxes, end or lower the sales tax, reform the business and occupation tax and establish a graduated income tax. This reform pours a long-lasting foundation for funding, he said.

“That is the only way,” he said. “We have not created a financing scheme to ensure the two-year and four-year colleges will have the faculties or the facilities they need.”

Tuition reform is necessary but must not unfairly squeeze poor students who, he said, pay a greater share of their resources for college than their wealthier peers.

Sims said the state should relinquish its power to set tuition for resident undergraduate students. Letting universities set rates would compel more-efficient use of the roughly $5,000-per-undergraduate slot paid by the state.

He is the only candidate backing Initiative 884, the proposed measure to raise the sales tax by one cent for public education. Forty percent of the sum is earmarked for higher education.

“We’re in a crisis right now. It’s a good interim measure. It isn’t the answer,” Sims said.

Neither is waiting for the economy to drive up investment in education.

“The driver to the economy is education. You’ve got to fund it first,” he said.

Dino Rossi, a former state senator and son of an elementary school teacher, points to his legislative record as a predictor of his behavior.

In 2003, as chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, he helped push through a six-year $750 million program for renovations and new construction at colleges and universities. Funds for a new college are not included.

He voted for laws intended to give universities power to set tuition for graduate and out-of-state students. And he backed a bill aimed at getting students to finish their academic careers within three years at a community college and five years at four-year schools. The state would stop paying for students who stay longer.

Rossi, in a major split with Democratic candidates, said the state should be able to buy enrollment slots at private and independent colleges. Gov. Gary Locke vetoed a bill this year that would have done that.

For Rossi, the enrollment storm will subside once the state’s economic climate improves.

“Taxpayers of the state of Washington have been very generous over the years. There are issues that have to be worked on,” he said.

“The bottom line is we have to get the economy back on track. If people have jobs and are making money, they pay more taxes and the state has more money.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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