Larger college classes? Fewer teaching assistants? Freezes in faculty salaries? At a time when the governor wants to cut basic health care...

Share story

Larger college classes? Fewer teaching assistants? Freezes in faculty salaries?

At a time when the governor wants to cut basic health care, adding 100 students to a freshman lecture class at the University of Washington doesn’t sound like much of a state crisis.

For a different viewpoint, consider the situation faced by Brian Bershad, a former UW computer-science professor who is now the engineering site director for Google Seattle/Kirkland. He’d like to hire more UW computer-science engineers — a lot more.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“If the UW could produce 1,000 amazing engineers every year,” Bershad said, “we’d find a way to hire them.”

But the university’s computer-sciences program already turns away hundreds of smart kids who apply annually. Future budget cutbacks could mean turning away still more.

There’s little doubt that state cutbacks will translate into higher tuition at all of the state’s two- and four-year colleges and universities. Many fear the cuts will erode the quality of state schools, which can’t raise tuition fast enough to make up for lost money.

But Bershad and others say the reductions have another, hidden cost: They erase opportunities for Washington students, meaning local kids won’t receive the training they need to land a job at Google — or with a local startup that one day could become the Next Big Thing.

“We’re making a dangerous, and deadly serious, policy decision to think we can systematically defund higher education without consequences,” said state Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, vice chair of the House’s higher-education committee. “Higher education is the DNA and soul of an innovation economy.”

On this, Republicans and Democrats generally agree. “The situation is dire,” said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, Whatcom County, a member of the Senate higher-education and workforce-development committee. “Higher education has received a disproportionate amount of the budget cuts.”

College enrollment low

Higher-education proponents point to studies that show the number of jobs requiring a four-year college degree will grow, and that people with at least a bachelor’s degree have a much lower rate of unemployment and make more money.

Yet, according to a 2005 federal report, Washington ranks 48th among the 50 states in the percentage of its population that is enrolled in four-year schools at the undergraduate level.

Many Washington students go elsewhere for college because options here are limited; both they and their parents pay more for an out-of-state education. And many students who leave the state to go to college never come back.

The state’s four-year schools have capped in-state enrollment. The only category that’s growing? Out-of-state admissions — because colleges and universities charge more for out-of-state tuition, and make a profit that way.

In the past 11 years, state support for Washington’s six four-year institutions dropped 32 percent, as measured in constant dollars.

For the next biennium, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget would cut higher-education funding by 4.2 percent and increase tuition by 9 to 11 percent.

UW engineering school

To understand what budget cuts have meant to four-year schools, it’s worth looking at just one slice: the University of Washington’s College of Engineering.

The university received a boost in state money in the late 2000s to grow the College of Engineering. But the state began rolling back the increases after reaching a high point in 2008.

Despite the additional state money, the engineering college turned away 54 percent of students who applied for a slot last year. The problem is even more acute in Computer Science and Engineering, a department within the engineering college, which has three times as many students seeking that major as the school has capacity to teach.

“We’re turning away many, many, many good students,” said Greg Miller, chair of civil and environmental engineering. “They want to do what we teach. And we should be delivering.”

The engineering college first trimmed about 30 administrative positions, engineering Dean Matt O’Donnell said. It cut some course offerings, increased the size of lecture classes and got rid of most part-time lecturers — professionals at local companies such as Boeing and Microsoft who taught a class or two each quarter.

The college reduced the army of teaching assistants who support students in labs and recitation sessions, and who play the vital role of helping students apply the theory they’ve learned in class to real-word applications.

“They just won’t learn it as well, and in the most important way — how to use the material,” O’Donnell said.

Planning for trouble

Trying to anticipate additional state-imposed costs and budget cuts, O’Donnell is planning for two scenarios for the next biennium: 5 percent and 10 percent cuts. Such reductions likely would mean eliminating more courses. That could increase the amount of time it takes to graduate, because not all students would be able to get classes they need to finish their degrees on time.

A popular introductory engineering class that helps draw freshmen and sophomores into engineering is on the chopping block. And, if the college has to absorb a 10 percent cut, it will have to decrease enrollment to maintain academic quality, O’Donnell said.

Faculty salaries, already frozen for two years, may be frozen for two more. O’Donnell worries that his 240 faculty members, many of whom are new hires, will grow restless over the lack of money and will be cherry-picked by other universities, especially private schools that have seen their endowments rise along with the improving economy.

The issues in the College of Engineering are being played out in public colleges and universities across the state.

At Washington State University, the College of Business has cut enrollment from 1,100 juniors and seniors to about 925, said Eric Spangenberg, dean of the college. It has lost 20 percent of its faculty since 2008 — professors lured away by universities that have rebounded financially.

Western Washington University has not limited enrollment in high-demand majors, but that could change this year, WWU spokesman Paul Cocke said.

State budget money largely funds faculty salaries in the College of Engineering. For every $1 spent on faculty salary, $7 of activity is generated, O’Donnell estimates — in tuition, research grants, continuing-education programs offered to the professional community, and private gifts that help fund most of the equipment. “If that goes away,” he said, “so too does the multiplier effect.”

And while UW receives more than $1 billion in federal and private money for research, those dollars can’t be used for teaching.

Google, for example has awarded the computer-science department more than $4 million in support of 35 computer-science research and educational programs in the past five years. But “we can’t hire faculty, we can’t create classrooms,” said Bershad, of Google.

Task force’s ideas

Figuring out what to do about the higher-education funding shortfall will be one of the crucial questions the 2011 Legislature must answer, said Ericksen, the senator from Ferndale. “If higher education is a priority, where do we take the money from?” he asked.

A task force created by Gregoire has recommended allowing colleges and universities to set their tuition, giving the schools a guaranteed minimum of state support and creating a private, tax-exempt fund to raise money for student financial aid.

The universities also would like the freedom to set tuition at differing rates, depending on the program. All undergraduates pay the same tuition, but it costs more to educate an engineer than an English major.

Ericksen said schools need more freedom to decide how best to use their dollars. Carlyle, the Seattle representative, believes academic bureaucracy could use a shake-up and be made more efficient. Ultimately, though, the problem is that there just isn’t enough money to go around.

Which brings us back to Google’s problem. Is it really an issue for the state’s economy if big companies such as Google or Microsoft have to recruit out of state?

Not for the big dogs in the tech field. Where it hurts most, Bershad said, is the startups — those little companies that might one day become the next big thing. For them, recruiting new employees from outside the state is a huge expense.

Take Geospiza, a small Seattle startup that creates software for analyzing the human genome. The company has fewer than 50 employees, most of them University of Washington graduates, said Rob Arnold, president of the company. “Having the UW in our backyard is an incredible advantage,” he said.

“The prospects for the future are just enormous for computer science,” O’Donnell said. “It’s a lost opportunity. These jobs are going to go away.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com