Washington higher ed panel: Budget a ‘disaster’

Board grimly backs proposed two-year spending plan

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

SALMON CREEK — Forget, for a moment, competition with China or India.

In the critical battle to raise a well-educated work force and create jobs, Washington state is losing ground to the likes of Massachusetts and Mississippi.

And nothing in the state university and college budget request to the 2011 Washington Legislature, endorsed Tuesday by members of the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board, is going to reverse the trend.

Outside influence

• In 2007, Washington imported* 76 bachelor’s degrees to meet work force demands, for every 100 bachelor’s degrees awarded by a Washington public or private university, and 125 graduate or professional degrees for every 100 graduate or profession degrees awarded here.

• from out-of-state, or overseas.

Source: Higher Education Coordinating Board analysis

Hence, the grim faces of HEC Board members and an air of desperation in a Washington State University Vancouver meeting room, as they adopted a proposed two-year, $3.34 billion budget plan.

“We are painfully aware this budget is a disaster: It does not meet the human and economic needs of this state, by far,” said Charley Bingham, head of the 10-member board’s fiscal committee.

“By far,” Bingham repeated.

The board’s plea to legislators? Keep total higher ed funding at 10 percent of the state’s general fund. At a bare minimum.

That doesn’t even hold steady with past years, members said: That’s a 10 percent slice of a shrinking pie, given state spending reductions made the past two years and certain to continue.

Since 1987, the portion of Washington’s general fund budget spent on higher ed has averaged 12 percent, ranging from a high of 16 percent to 10 percent set for 2011.

Not an encouraging trend, given staff research that highlights a link between adult levels of college education and unemployment rates in each state during the Great Recession. More state budget woes are likely to further hinder student access to college courses and training, only worsening the situation.

“We all know we have a crisis and a looming disaster if we don’t do something out of the ordinary in this legislation session,” said Jesus Hernandez, HEC Board chairman.

The staff research was shared in an October news release, but got little attention during the hectic election cycle.

Salient points from the report, upon which board members hope to wage a type of moral and public relations campaign:

• The share of employed Americans who hold only a high school diploma, or less, shrank from 47 percent in 1992 to 36 percent in 2009. By then, nearly two-thirds of employed workers had a college degree or at least had taken some courses.

Even in deep recession, the 2009 unemployment rate for workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher was 4.9 percent, compared to nearly 15 percent for those without a high school diploma.

• Higher education helps build a buffer against joblessness. Although Washington’s unemployment is above average for its education level, it did see an average 2.4 percent annual growth in jobs that required a bachelor’s degree in 2006-09. Jobs available here at all other education levels declined in that three-year period.

More troubling, yet:

• The share of Washington residents with an associate degree or higher is smaller for those age 25-34 than those age 35-44, or age 45-64. The same pattern holds across America, on average. Meaning the younger generation is less educated than its predecessor, a dubious first in this country.

Not so in Massachusetts: More than 53 percent of the younger set there held a degree in 2008. Which means Massachusetts and similar, highly educated states get a big jump on Washington when battling for lucrative industries, investment and jobs, said John Lederer, HEC Board associate director of policy planning & research.

True, the Evergreen State has boomed in recent decades by luring much of its engineering, software design and other high-tech talent from out of state or overseas, for jobs giants Microsoft, Boeing and others.

But new career incubators are more likely to be small or medium-sized companies for whom local education levels and other costs play an increasingly large role in location decisions, Lederer said.

College-trained talent is now pooling in places such as South Carolina and Mississippi, attracting private-sector growth, he said — as recently witnessed by board member Sam Smith.

“Companies are going to vote with their feet,” Lederer said. “We’re slipping and losing ground against other states.”

(For the full HEC Board reports: http://hecb.wa.gov.)

What’s been Washington’s recent response?

Since 2009, the state has cut 2,741 enrollment slots at public universities and colleges; reduced state funding for each full-time student by 14 percent (offset by large tuition hikes); and now funds only three-quarters of students eligible for state financial aid (mostly through its State Need Grants).

The proposed “10 percent slice” of the 2011-13 state budget asks for an additional $32.9 million to cover 4,400 of the estimated 18,000 students eligible for Need Grants who are not receiving aid, and nothing more.

It’s a stark, line-in-the-sand approach that pleases no one, but also a brutally frank assessment of Olympia’s budget mess.

“We simply have to start somewhere,” said Bingham, the fiscal panel leader.

He predicts additional tuition increases, but said legislators must ease the blow by funding more State Need Grants to help more students gain access.

Smith, 15-year president of Washington State University through 2000, said alarmed parents have asked him whether it’s best to move elsewhere to better their child’s college options.

“The answer is, this year the Legislature will decide that question,” Smith said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.