Adequate funding for higher education in Washington state is like a ship on the horizon, a dream that never seems to sail any closer.
Governor Inslee has now joined the long list of public officials pointing at that ship, telling the Seattle City Club that “We’re really at risk of having our colleges erode.” Pretty much everybody in Olympia, on both sides of the aisle, says the same thing. (And since he’s new, we’ll cut the governor some slack on not getting it completely right—we’re at risk of having our colleges further erode.)
Everybody knows we’re killing our colleges, nobody seems to be willing or able to do anything about it. The business community moans and groans about STEM graduates but resists closing even the most obsolete tax loophole to pay for them. The Seattle Times puts half-page ads for its wonderful Greater Good Campaign directly opposite editorials that relentlessly describe state employees (i.e. the people who work in our colleges) as the root of all evil. And legislators’ responses range from sincere concern to puffy demagoguery, but nobody seems to be able to create the political will to generate the real resources necessary to stop the slipping.
The special session stumbles along with three budget proposals on the table, none of which stops the erosion that the governor is worried about. Technically, none of the three budgets makes new cuts to higher education. But they all enshrine the new normal of the old cuts, leaving college and university base funding well below where it was in 2009, and doing nothing to address the growing problems of restricted access, larger classes, and increased time to graduation.
The governor and the House Democrats allow for modest tuition increases, which would allow our colleges and universities to continue treading the foul water we’ve been thrown into. The senate Republicans (er, sorry, Majority Coalition Caucus), apparently assuming that it’s better for a student to pay another $8000 for an extra year of college than an extra $400 to finish on time, have proposed no tuition increases. This attempt to play to the cheap seats would only leave higher education sinking further on the horizon.
Polling shows that the people of Washington want their children to have access to affordable high quality higher education. They don’t want their kids working for the people from other states where they invested in higher education. Our elected officials have responded to that desire with a lot of rhetoric about higher education as the engine of the economy, an area where we must reinvest, etc. What they haven’t responded with is money. When all the bullshit is scraped away, we’re left with this stubborn fact: Washington ranks 49th in the country in total per student funding for higher education.
Perhaps someday our ship will come in, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be this biennium. Let’s hope that somebody does something before the ship sinks.