College branch campuses at risk?

Lawmaker says higher ed can’t sustain model if there’s more cuts

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OLYMPIA — Higher education leaders say closing university branch campuses will do more harm than good to communities like Vancouver.

With the governor proposing a 15 percent cut to state funding for higher education, state Rep. Kathy Haigh, D-Shelton, has begun to face the harsh reality and consider the options, which may include closing branch campuses.

“It’s a conversation we’re going to have to have if things continue the way they have been going,” Haigh said.

While there is currently no legislation to close branches, Haigh said it will need to be considered if there is no improvement in the budget and no funding package can be approved.

“I mention this so people have some idea of what we might actually be saving if we raise revenue,” Haigh said.

Lynn Valenter, the interim chancellor for Washington State University Vancouver, said closing branch campuses may save money but it would ultimately stunt growth in communities.

“You look at a place like Clark County where unemployment is higher than the state average and you want to take away their community asset?” Valenter said. “It’s taking away the hope of that community because we are a heart that they look to for future development.”

WSU Vancouver is serving more than 3,000 students and enrollment is up again this year. Many of these students, Valenter said, do not have other options and would have nowhere to go if the branch shut down.

“We’re here to serve place-bound students without the ability to go out of state,” Valenter said. “You’re limiting their ability to get an education.”

However, with options such as online education, Haigh said she believes students have more options than ever.

“With as many campuses as we have set up there are other options for students to get a good education and online college education is becoming more and more popular and more valid,” Haigh said.

Closing branch campuses may not be an easy feat with legislators such as Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, willing to fight for their community branches.

“Shutting them down is a last resort. We’ve fought long and hard for this branch campus,” Wylie said. “We need it for the region, it’s an important economic factor. To shut it down would sabotage and disrupt the education of people.”

WSU President Elson Floyd has called the idea of shutting down campuses a “nonstarter” for a university that has worked to provide better access for students.

But higher education cuts may come down to choosing quality of education over quantity of campuses. “It’s a bit of a reality check for higher education,” Haigh said. “How are we actually going to pay for this?”

WSU has sustained a 52 percent cut to its state funding since 2009. The university made up for its drop in funding by cutting programs and services, increasing enrollment and raising tuition, a solution that Haigh said is unsustainable.

“Students aren’t going to be able to afford it. They’re filling every class as much as they can right now but that may not last,” Haigh said.

Vancouver’s branch campus has taken its “fair share” of budget cuts and has learned to do more with less, Valenter said. “At the branch campuses we’ve already taken huge and significant cuts. We’re delivering on the promise that founded these branch campuses. We’re doing the things the Legislature asked us to do and providing for our communities,” she said.