State Relations

October 20, 2008

Budget Deficits and the Future of Higher Education

Hard to surf the national websites these days without reading about budget misery all around the nation and the plethora of proposals out there to cut funding for higher education.  At least half of the states are projected to be in some current or future state of fiscal distress and as has been in the case during recent economic downturns over the past 30 years, higher education generally bears the brunt of the reduction.

South Carolina just cut public higher education by 15 percent and warned institutions not to raise to tuition to compensate.  Arizona just completed a devastating budget session that saw double-digit cuts to higher education and the postponement of a much trumpeted construction bond issue which would have jump-started a number of access and research capacity projects.  Governor Patrick in Massachusetts has told public colleges and universities they will lose 5.6% of their state funds to help balance the budget and in Pennsylvania, 4.25% cuts are being planned to university budgets.

In Washington State, budget reductions of about 2% have been proposed for the current fiscal year and all of us in higher education anxiously await the Governor’s 2009-11 budget recommendations in December to see how the projected budget gap will be dealt with, especially if new taxes are off the table.

At the same time we read about upcoming budget challenges, discussions continue to look for ways to expand higher education opportunities in the Puget Sound region.  It’s been awhile since we talked about the efforts to create a new UW North Sound campus, but discussions lead by a consultant to the Higher Education Coordinating Board continue to explore potential compromises on a site for the yet to be located and funded campus.  The Everett Herald recently ran this story about how a new UW North Sound campus is playing out in the Gregoire-Rossi contest for Governor.

Conversations also continue on how to expand four year degree opportunities on the Kitsap Peninsula.  A number of ideas have been discussed in meetings held this interim including establishment of an academic center or increasing the ability of Olympic College in Bremerton to offer more four year degrees.  And most recently, Bellevue Community College has raised the idea of broadening its academic mission to offer four year degrees as well.

I suppose the good news on all of this is that a lot of well-intentioned folks continue to believe in the importance of expanding higher education opportunities, particularly the idea of producing more four year degrees.  One wonders, however, how to balance such enthusiasm against the realities of the state’s budget situation and the importance of continuing to support and strengthen the existing system of public higher education institutions in the state.