Higher ed must disclose priorities

The presidents of the state’s six public four-year colleges recently wrote a regrets letter to Gov. Jay Inslee. They respectfully declined his invitation to identify how they would handle a 15 percent budget reduction.

They prefer to characterize the impact in broad strokes. They said cuts would lead to higher tuition and reduced enrollments, limit access and undermine the state’s economic recovery. They urged Inslee to invest in education, to not reduce their funding.

It’s the right message, inartfully delivered. The presidents risk reinforcing legislative perceptions that the higher education system is elitist and out-of-touch, not subject to the rules that apply to everyone else. Lawmakers are already skeptical enough.

The budget instructions came from the state Office of Financial Management, which last June asked each agency and institution to rebuild its budget from an 85 percent base, meaning a 15 percent reduction from current levels. It’s a form of zero-based budgeting, like Gov. Gary Locke’s Priorities of Government exercise during the 2001 recession. Neither new nor novel, it’s common sense budgeting, particularly when money is scarce.

Marty Brown, a former budget director and current head of the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, told the Seattle Times that his board will comply with the budget request. He thinks it gives budget-writers useful information. And he doubts there will be any 15 percent cut.

By law, the governor must present a budget that balances without new taxes. He undoubtedly will also present his preferred budget, one that increases taxes to maintain and expand priority programs.

Western Washington University president Bruce Shepherd said complying with the budget instructions would “cause damage lasting decades” even if the reductions didn’t materialize. In a campus memo he writes that it would be hard to retain and recruit faculty, staff and students to programs on the “hit list.” Probably, but surely some programs are more important than others. If administrators don’t make the call, lawmakers will.

These have been lean years for higher education. Despite increases in the most recent budget, state support for postsecondary education is still 13 percent below the 2007-2009 funding level. It’s a national problem. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities reports that state funding of higher education nationwide has declined by 23 percent per student since 2008. The Center shows Washington down 28 percent.

In a 2012 report published by the American Council on Education, Thomas Mortenson traces the funding decline back to 1980. As state support ebbed, tuition skyrocketed, increasing by 230 percent at state universities and colleges. If current trends continue, he predicts average state support will reach zero by 2059, essentially privatizing the public higher education system.

Unsurprisingly, student loan debt surged. The average graduate of the class of 2014 carries a $33,000 debt burden, double what it was twenty years ago, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Something is fundamentally wrong with higher education finance across the country and here, something that will not be fixed just by boosting state funding. That’s for another discussion. Ideally, legislators in Olympia can stop the bleeding next year, but the pressure will be intense.

OFM director David Schumacher presents a stark picture. Revenue growth remains sluggish, the state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling requires $5 billion in new K-12 funding over the next four years, and about two-thirds of the state budget is protected from cuts by the state constitution or federal law (think basic education, mandatory Medicaid payments, debt service and pensions). Higher education is unprotected.

It gets worse. Initiative 1351, the class-size reduction measure on the ballot would add another $4.7 billion in mandatory spending over the next four years without providing new revenue. If the college presidents really want to avoid budget cuts, the next letter they write should urge their alumni networks to vote no on the initiative.

Washington’s postsecondary schools play a vital role in the state economy, fostering opportunity for students and laying the foundation for innovative new industries. Throughout the recession and still today, employers here have thousands of jobs that cannot be filled because applicants lack the necessary postsecondary education.

The presidents are right to defend their budgets. But they’re wrong to refuse to disclose priorities.

Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. Email rsdavis@simeonpartners.com

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