As the state House and Senate near a budget deal (we all hope), lawmakers are reminded to make sure higher education has enough money.
This is not the year for cuts. At a minimum, the budget must include maintenance-level funding that allows our public universities and community and technical colleges to pay for current programs and obligations.
Budget proposals from the Democratic House and the Republican-led Senate Majority Coalition include maintenance-level funding. Both budgets also invest more money in the State Need Grant.
But in letters to key lawmakers this week, education leaders from both the state’s four-year and two-year systems expressed serious concerns about the budget prospects.
University of Washington President Michael Young urges the Legislature to prioritize expansion of STEM programs. A “Skills Gaps” report by the Washington Roundtable noted that 25,000 jobs are going unfilled in Washington because of a lack of qualified applicants. Eighty percent of those jobs are in health care and STEM fields.
STEM program expansions at the University of Washington and Washington State University is key to addressing the skills gap. At the UW, half of qualified students who apply for engineering, and two-thirds applying for computer science programs, cannot get in because there is no space.
Other budget problems that ought to be made to go away, include an untenable 3 percent tuition reduction in the Senate Majority Coalition’s budget. Our public universities and colleges have just two ways to sustain themselves, state aid and tuition. Without a significant ramp up in state support, reducing tuition is simply taking away revenue the schools need. It negates the state’s proposed increase in funding. The House offers the better solution by allowing schools to raise tuition by 3 to 5 percent a year.
Another big problem that ought to go away is the Senate’s proposed 20 percent tuition surcharge on international students. Foreign students at our state’s universities already pay nearly two and half times the in-state tuition paid by residents. Making them pay more is an unfair tax.
Lawmakers must scrub the budget compromise for anything that imperils higher education. They must also keep an eye on the clock. The longer it takes to reach a budget deal, the more vulnerable financial aid and education jobs become. Negative impacts have already begun. WSU has pushed back by a year expansion plans at its Everett campus.
A budget balanced with revenue, strategic cuts outside of education and smart reforms needs to happen. Soon.