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Lawmakers: Stop the bleeding of college opportunity

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Feb. 4, 2012 at 6:00 pm |
February 3, 2012 6:03 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Higher education must bear its share of the pain as the Legislature squeezes another billion-plus dollars out of the current state budget. It should not bear more than its share.

It’s a longstanding legislative tradition to use the state’s higher education system – universities, community and technical colleges – as a rainy day fund when the economy turns bad and cash reserves run out. College opportunity isn’t protected by the Washington Constitution, though it should be, and it’s often the path of least resistance for lawmakers trying to protect their political darlings from budget cuts.

Over the last three years, the Legislature has already whacked its support for post-secondary education by a stunning one-third or more, depending on the school.

For the University of Washington, funding is down a staggering 50 percent. The state’s community and technical colleges are expecting to serve 10,000 fewer students this year.

At a town hall meeting in Seattle this week, Bruce Shepard – president of Western Washington University – reported that a brain drain has begun, with schools from other states cherry-picking from among this state’s top faculty members.

“No other state has found it necessary to slash higher education to the extent that the state of Washington has,” he said.

Lawmakers are again looking to break the piggy bank. Financial aid for students could take a big hit, and appropriations for the institutions could get squeezed yet harder.
For many young Washingtonians, the loss of lifetime opportunity has been immeasurable. The state Higher Education Coordinating Board tracks how many get frozen out of college and technical training. In a new report, it has found that the number of aspiring students eligible for state Need Grants – but unable to get them – rose for the third consecutive school year in 2010-2011.

Twenty-five thousand lower-income applicants were denied grants. A comparable wave of deferred dreams is expected in the current school year.

Keep doing this, and there comes a reckoning. It only takes a few years to destroy a state’s public college system, but it takes decades to rebuild.
Once word gets around that Washington gives relatively low priority to higher education, good luck recruiting teaching and research talent. And good luck keeping Washington’s brightest in the state to build the economy. When students go away to college, they often stay away.

Higher education can create jobs, pull families out of poverty, end welfare dependency, give employers the skilled workers they need to expand, and consummate the labor of public school teachers.

But it can’t do any of this well without the backing of the Legislature. Lawmakers must not let 2012 become the year state colleges were given their final tip over the edge.

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