WSUV students raise voices, protest potential cuts

There’s no fluff in budget, chairman of board says at rally

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

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More than 250 Washington State University Vancouver students took a midday break from classes Thursday to rally on behalf of their future.

The noon event, billed as a “mass walkout” and organized by student government and the Washington Student Association, drew students and a scattering of faculty members to an outdoor plaza to sing, clap and sign petitions protesting what they fear may be in store for higher education as the 2010 Legislature slashes spending to close a $2.6 billion budget gap.

Those actions could include more cuts to academic programs; elimination of crucial financial aid; and even further hikes in tuition, which rose by 14 percent this school year and is set to increase by another 14 percent in 2010-11.

Students also want a voice in future decisions on tuition increases, a voice they say legislation pending in Olympia could silence.

Similar rallies were held at several other state college and university campuses in advance of a student lobbying blitz in Olympia set for Feb. 14-16.

Dreams threatened

Speakers at the Vancouver rally said further cuts in financial aid could force them to defer or even abandon their dreams of a college degree.

“My mother wanted for me what she never got: a college education,” said Sierra Harris, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering who depends on a Washington State Needs Grant to make ends meet. “What happens when they cut need grants? What happens when Washington doesn’t have an educated work force?”

Spring Atkinson, a single mother who had a successful career in the mortgage business before she became a self-described “displaced worker,” hopes for a new career in social media. She is attending WSUV on a full-tuition Vocational Excellence scholarship, but that program too may be o n the cutting block.

“Either I’m going to leave here with a huge load of debt, or I won’t finish at all,” she said.

Mike Worthy, chairman of the WSU Board of Regents, urged students to become politically involved and tell their stories to the decision-makers in Olympia.

State support for higher education has declined since 2001, even with multibillion-dollar increases in overall state funding, Worthy said.

Last year, he said, the WSU system absorbed a $54 million cut in funding. This year, another $13.5 million in cuts is on the table.

“There is no fluff left at WSU,” he said. “Further cuts will erode the quality of a WSUV diploma. More programs will need to be eliminated and visionary initiatives that have been started will not have funding to evolve.”

Because most state higher education spending falls in the category of “discretionary,” it’s especially vulnerable as the Legislature searches for ways to trim.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt, a graduate of WSU Vancouver, said today’s students have a right to expect help paying for a college education, just as state taxpayers helped him when he was a student.

“Anything I can do to work with our delegation, I am more than happy to do,” he said in an interview. “The education I received at WSU and Clark College was critical to my success.”

Tuition rate debate

On one key issue — who has the authority to set tuition rates, the Legislature or university regents — student organizers suffered a setback this week.

On Wednesday, the Senate Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee voted out Senate Bill 6562, which assigns that authority to the regents at WSU, the University of Washington and Western Washington University, at least through 2018.

Currently, the Legislature sets the upper limits of annual tuition increases.

Under SB 6562, which is supported by the state’s five university presidents and a number of business groups, the regents would set resident undergraduate tuition rates as long as the average annual compounded rate of increase did not exceed 9 percent over the previous 15 years or 14 percent in any one year.

Max Ault, the lead organizer of Thursday’s event, said giving that authority to the regents would cut students out of the tuition-setting process altogether.

“A board of regents could set the limits, but the regents are not elected and are not accountable to the voters or to students,” he said. “If that happens, students will have no voice.”

Ault said he was pleased with the turnout at the rally, which yielded 264 signatures on petitions to the Legislature, asking it to protect funding for higher education.

“I do feel like it was a success, especially for a commuter campus like this,” he said. “It brought students and faculty together.”

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.