Higher education's financial future looks grim in Washington state

Ben Doo is a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School. He’s also a college student. Doo, 16, is enrolled in the Highline Community College program Running Start, which is allowing him to pursue an associate’s degree in engineering.

Doo wants to pursue engineering at the University of Washington and eventually get a master’s degree. But could his future be in jeopardy because of state budget cuts?

Doo was at a forum held by the College Promise Coalition on March 10 at Todd Beamer High School. It was a discussion with local officials, educators and business leaders on the importance of higher education, and what to do about cuts to the state’s universities and community colleges.

Doo was the only high school-aged person at the event, which was scarcely attended. Doo came as a way to get more involved with Highline’s student government (the student government president, Olga Afichuk, was a speaker). He also wanted to learn about cuts to higher education.

The event was moderated by Highline professor T.M. Sell, and the panel consisted of Federal Way Mayor Skip Priest, Afichuk, Federal Way schools assistant superintendent Josh Garcia, Federal Way Chamber CEO Tom Pierson and John Hinds, general manager of the Kent Station shopping center, which has a branch of Green River Community College.

Highline President Jack Bermingham set the general tone of the higher education funding quagmire with the question, “Will higher education be affordable and accessible to future generations?”

State government is trying to fix a $5 billion budget gap for the next budget biennium — the budget for the next two years. Cuts to higher education are part of fixing the gap. Under Gov. Chris Gregoire’s plan, for example, community colleges could be reduced to a total allocation of $546 million by 2013, down from around $700 million in 2009.

To make up for cuts, tuition could increase at community colleges by as much as 23 percent over the next few years, wrote State Board for Community Technical Colleges executive director Charles Earl recently in a letter to legislators.

Lack of attention to the issue of higher education funding cuts was underscored at Thursday’s meeting by the lack of attendees. There was around 20 in the audience.

Priest said that the public must alert legislators of their concern for higher education cuts, and not just when the state budget is in crisis. Constituents should strike up a relationship with legislators and consistently make their concerns known.

Higher education tends to be less popular of an issue, Priest said, because colleges and universities are not protected under the state constitution like K-12 education.

But that does not help the state succeed. Garcia said that 77 percent of future jobs will require post-high school education. A 2010 study by the Georgetown Center on Education predicated that by 2018, there will be 47 million new jobs in the economy — 63 percent of which will require at least a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree.

By the end of the forum, Doo said he was worried. He comes from a single-parent home and must pay for college with a combination of loans and scholarships. Doo emphasized the imperative of those two funding sources: “It’s definitely going to be expensive,” he said.

Doo plans to write letters to his legislators over spring break.


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