Reality-Challenged Legislators Threaten Our Universities
By David Horsey - David Horsey's Drawing Power
April 07, 2009
While hunting for ways to save money, state legislators may foolishly gun down the geese that lay very big golden eggs.
The metaphorical geese are Washington's six state-subsidized universities. The golden treasures they produce are an educated work force, technological innovation, world-class health care and the futures of tens-of-thousands of our young people. As dumb as it would be to throw away such precious gifts for the sake of a balanced budget, the truly idiotic thing would be to do it when there is an easy alternative that would make it unnecessary. The question is, are legislators perceptive enough to see it?
As a fledgling reporter, I covered the Legislature for three years. I quickly learned that a legislative session is very much like summer camp: there's not much adult supervision and it's very easy to forget about the real world while getting swept up by the insular concerns of camp life. That seems to be what's happening in Olympia right now. Apparently to get the public to pay attention to the problem of a $9 billion budget deficit, legislative budgeteers have come up with draconian proposals seemingly intended to scare people into voting for some kind of tax increase. In the Senate plan, 23 percent of funding for universities would be cut; in the House, the universities would lose 31 percent of their funding. You don't have to be particularly astute to recognize that's the sort of idea that comes from people who have lost touch with reality.
The Senate acknowledges the pain their cut would inflict and assumes that 10,000 fewer students would be educated at the universities in the coming year -- and another 10,000 the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. That's right, 40,000 students could be kept out of our universities in the next four years at a time when graduating classes at our high schools have swollen to the highest levels since the post-World War II Baby Boom.
That's crazy enough, but consider what the House proposes to do: a nearly one-third reduction in funding with the expectation that just as many students would be admitted to the universities. Well, just how do all those students get educated when faculty and staff are decimated by the budget cuts? How do they get into the classes required for graduation if course offerings are truncated? And, if students are killing time in college, waiting for classes to become available, how is room made for the next cohort of incoming freshmen?
The only way to make it work is to cheapen the education the students receive, to embrace mediocrity and let Washington's higher education system settle to the level of Mississippi. What we have right now is a half dozen diverse universities spread around the state that, over the last decade, have become better and better, thanks, in part, to more adequate funding from the state. The University of Washington, in particular, has achieved a level of excellence that has earned it recognition as one of the top research universities, not just in the country, but on the planet. As smarter people than I have observed, the UW is one of the biggest engines we have to drive our economy. Do legislators really want to shut that engine down right when we need it the most?
Dumb, dumb, dumb. And the dumbest thing? It's completely avoidable. There's another way to close the budget hole: tuition increases that would largely be paid for with federal money.
Adminstrators at the UW and the other schools know they will have to take a hit, just like the rest of state government, but they'd like to limit the cut to a single digit by being allowed to raise tution by 14 percent. Some legislators hate the idea of raising student tuition in hard times, but here's the sweet deal: The federal stumulus plan just passed by Congress increased Pell Grants to economically disadvantaged students by $1,000 and increased the tuition tax credit available to middle income families to $2,500 per year. That tax credit can be taken each year for four years of college and is available to families earning up to $160,000 a year.
In other words, the $875 in added annual tuition the UW is seeking would be covered for any student whose family lives on less than $160,000. Compare that with how much more money students would pay if they were stuck in college for even one extra quarter because budget cuts had made classes unavailable -- probably three times $875.
In other words, if legislators want to save our great universities and save most students time and money, they shouldn't cut the universities' budgets, they should raise tuition and let federal dollars pay the bill.
Even with the increase, tuition at the University of Washington would still be lower than at the nine peer institutions with which the UW is compared, including the University of Massachusetts, the University of Colorado and UCLA. By the way, proposed budgets cuts to higher education are five percent in Massachusetts, 6.7 percent in Colorado and just 10 percent in nearly-bankrupt California. Is Washington so much worse off that a 31 percent cut is justified? Of course not.
Now, I'll admit to a vested interest in all of this. My son is hoping to start in the nationally-recognized automobile design program at Western Washington University this fall. I want him to be able to get in and to get out on time. Legislators will not be doing me a favor if they screw up my son's plans. Nor will they do any student in this state a favor if they cripple our fine universities.
So, dear legislators, remember the folks back home who will rely on the nurses and doctors and teachers and entrepreneurs and engineers -- and designers of tomorrow's energy-efficient automobiles -- who will come out of our universities, if given the opportunity. You can stop with the scare tactics, if that's actually what your higher education budget proposals are, because we are indeed scared -- scared you will do something truly damaging and dumb.