Don’t balance the state budget by cutting universities and colleges

If you’ve followed Smarter Government Washington, you know our position on higher education is clear: cutting higher ed budgets hurts students and their families and harms our economic future. After years of watching state government slash state support for universities and community colleges, we cannot tolerate further cuts to our state’s economic engines.

In the current two-year budget, the downward trend in university funding was finally reversed, thanks to state Senate leaders who made it a priority to end the slide. Tuition at state universities was finally frozen as a result, providing some stability to families who had been shocked by double-digit tuition increases every year.

There are “good” reasons (scare quotes necessary) higher ed was consistently first on the chopping block. For one thing, too few legislators considered themselves champions of higher education. At budget writing time, not many were fighting for higher ed funding. Secondly, some cuts to higher ed could be backfilled through tuition hikes. Rather than cuts or tax hikes that were felt broadly by the public, tuition hikes were a “tax increase” felt only by students and their families.

Some may be surprised to learn how little the state currently spends on higher education. $3.2 billion is appropriated for higher ed in the current two-year budget, of which a total of $1.2 billion goes to the four-year universities – UW, WSU, Western, Central, Eastern and the Evergreen State College. Per-student state support is low.

Some argue that the funding cuts are fine because a state university education is still a “bargain,” and in a way they’re right. While student loan debt has increased, it remains true that college graduates are likely to outearn those without a bachelor’s degree.

But the flipside of that “bargain” rationale is that our college degree attainment rates are alarmingly low, even while well-paying jobs right here in Washington remain unfilled because employers can’t find skilled workers. The result is that workers from other states move here to take those positions instead of Washington young people who need steady employment.

Further higher ed cuts, and the return to drastic tuition hikes those cuts would necessitate, will make college even less affordable for families and hurt higher ed’s efforts to improve our shamefully low degree attainment rates. The “penny wise, pound foolish” argument can be made against cutting many items in the state budget, but further cuts to higher ed clearly will have a direct and harmful effect on our future economy, and immediate negative consequences for students, aspiring students, and their families – both the families supporting them and, in many cases, the families they are supporting while going to school. That’s the wrong direction for our state.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.