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Originally published Monday, January 5, 2015 at 5:25 PM

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Guest: Higher education can’t afford another budget cut

Freezing tuition is admirable, as Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed. But only if the price for doing that is paid, writes guest columnist Bruce Shepard.

Special to The Times

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Higher Education does not need any more taxpayer money! Reduce some of these ridiculous salaries you will see in the... MORE
Not enough focus on the cost side of the issue. What is the annual rate of growth of the budget for our universities... MORE
This is dumb. How can the average american afford to spend $30k+ a year for a business degree to earn $40k a year... MORE


I LOOK at Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget proposal through one lens: implications for higher education’s ability to serve Washington. While the budget represents real leadership, significant work must be done to shore up funding for higher education.

Washington’s revenue approach is broken — designed for an economy that no longer exists: taxing goods when today’s economy is service-based and goods are sold more and more outside the state’s taxing authority.

This means that, as the economy grows, state revenues grow more slowly. Budget requirements escalate as population grows, and commitments are locked in through formulaic spending obligations.

State support for public higher education is then remorselessly decreased.

Over the last 25 years, the percentage of Washington’s budget going to four-year public higher education has dropped to 3.5 percent from 8.2 percent.

Inslee, then, is to be strongly commended for putting the issue of the broken revenue system before us.

I also laud his approach in addressing early learning and K-12 needs. The educational continuum is highly interdependent, the strength of each is critical to a shared mission of building a stronger Washington.

Inslee is also right in providing funding to help more low-income students pay for college.

Inslee’s support of need-based financial aid is also right on. High school graduation numbers are flat and projected to remain so. A growing proportion of these graduates come from lower-income families.

Inslee’s proposals are also refreshing for what they do not include: magically thinking that higher ed growth can be addressed by improving efficiency.

Washington’s six public universities are already top in efficiency and effectiveness. Other states have performance problems. In Washington, it is a different challenge: The increased baccalaureate capacity we need comes at rock-bottom prices, but those prices do have to be funded.

Through tough times, Washington cut funding for baccalaureate education in half. Today, Washington ranks 49th out of 50 states in such funding. Thank goodness for Florida.

How much of the governor’s proposed additional revenue goes to reversing the 50 percent cut to higher education? None.

Indeed, the budget proposal would result in yet more severe budget cuts at Western Washington University.

That inevitably would affect course availability, the time it takes to earn a degree and the excellence of Washington’s premier public undergraduate university.

Freezing tuition is admirable, as the governor has proposed. But only if the price for doing that is paid.

For example, the governor’s budget assumes a large contractual commitment previously made in his office would be funded only one-third by the state, two-thirds by tuition. But, freezing tuition without paying the necessary freight makes this a budget reduction.

For WWU, this would result in a biennial loss of more than $7 million — equal to cutting 1,200 course offerings.

When the Legislature froze tuition for the current biennium, they got it right — they faced up to the costs. Thank you! That must again be done. And, the six public universities are united on a proposal to do just that.

Inslee’s budget proposal is to be commended, then, for seeking fixes to Washington’s broken tax structure. But, reinvesting (instead of further cutting) must be a priority if higher education is to remain the single most powerful lever the state has for building brighter futures for all.

His proposal is commendable for addressing the costs students and their families face. But, we must be willing to pay the price of tuition freezes.

The governor is to be commended for addressing critically important needs in early learning and K-12. But we must not be building a staircase to nowhere.

Bruce Shepard is president of Western Washington University.

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