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Higher education cuts coming home to roost

Post by Kim Bradford on June 12, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
June 12, 2010 1:32 pm

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

The workhorses of Washington’s higher education system are showing the strain of more need and less money.

News that Clover Park Technical College will exact $1.3 million in cuts from personnel and programs this year is the latest fallout of the squeeze on community and technical colleges.

State lawmakers can’t pare $73 million from two-year colleges’ budgets without impairing the institutions’ ability to preserve existing programs, much less meet demand created by record unemployment.

Colleges across the state are doing more with less. Students face longer waits for high-demand programs, financial aid processing and support services such as tutoring. They are paying higher tuition for fewer – and more crowded – class offerings.

The situation is bound to worsen as schools, already hobbled by the weight of burgeoning enrollments and previous reductions in funding, absorb the latest round of state budget cuts.

At Clover Park, administrators are eliminating three staffers and one adjunct faculty member. The losses hurt more because they come on the heels of the elimination of 35 jobs last year and a sharp upswing in enrollment.

Over the last three years, Clover Park’s state funding has declined 15 percent while the student body has grown nearly 30 percent.

At other South Sound colleges, the story is similar. Tacoma Community College and Pierce College each anticipate cutting more than $1 million from their budgets. The board of trustees at Bates Technical College recently declared a financial emergency and announced plans to lay off 19 staff and faculty members.

Higher education funding holds the dubious distinction of being the biggest pot of unprotected money in the state budget. When budget writers go looking for nips and tucks, state colleges and universities are likely to get pinched. When lawmakers have to amputate $11 billion, schools better brace for a blow.

Higher education gets cut out of desperation, not sound economic policy. When money for creating an educated workforce is slashed, opportunity – for individuals and the state economy – bleeds.

Nowhere is that truer than among the state’s 34 community and technical colleges – the go-to resources for workers who need new skills to land and keep jobs.

Community and technical colleges do everything from train nurses to teach adults how to read. They educate workers for high-demand fields, help the employed advance, retrain workers from shrinking industries and teach basic life skills.

Their reach is as great as their array of programs. Two-year colleges enroll more than 470,000 students, the equivalent of 160,000 full-time students or three University of Washingtons.

The Legislature has faced some impossible choices over the last two years, and community colleges could have fared worse. But it’s fair warning to say that lawmakers can return to that well only so many times before they handicap not just the schools and their students but economic recovery as well.

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