Leaders of the state's universities and community colleges, already reeling from more than $557 million in cuts over the last two years, said Thursday another round of short-term and long-term budget cuts could have a calamitous effect on the quality of the schools

Leaders of the state’s universities and community colleges, already reeling from more than $557 million in cuts over the last two years, said Thursday another round of short-term and long-term budget cuts could have a calamitous effect on the quality of the schools.

Gathered at Highline Community College to watch a live feed of the state’s quarterly revenue forecast, they were dismayed to learn they need to cut their budgets right away, by an estimated $84 million. Long-term cuts are also on the horizon, making hefty tuition hikes even more likely.

“These numbers are devastating,” said Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University. “We are looking at continued erosion. The greatest challenge we face is maintaining the quality of what we do.”

“We’re mortgaging the future,” said Central Washington University President James Gaudino, who said his school has started to ask donors to fund annual operations rather than giving to its endowment. “We’re at risk, I think, of unraveling one of the great university systems in the country.”

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And Phyllis Wise, the University of Washington provost, said other universities are “poaching the University of Washington for our best faculty already.”

The UW expects to increase class size, decrease the number of advisers and put a freeze on faculty recruitments, “which in the long run will kill us,” said Wise, who is stepping in as interim president after President Mark Emmert leaves in two weeks for his new job as head of the NCAA.

The frank exchange took place during a regular meeting of the state Higher Education Coordinating Board, which does strategic planning for higher education in Washington.

State universities and community colleges are required by law to submit budget proposals to the board, which then makes recommendations to the Office of Financial Management, the agency that develops the governor’s budget proposal.

This year, the board scrapped formal budget proposals and instead asked higher-education leaders to watch the economic forecast by chief economist Arun Raha, then talk about what the numbers could mean.

The state’s projected shortfall in the next two-year budget, for 2011-2013, is expected to balloon from $3.3 billion to around $4.5 billion, making it likely higher education will again face serious cuts, tuition will rise and not all students who qualify for financial aid will get it.

More than 15,000 students who qualified for state financial aid this year did not receive it.

In the short term — for the current year ending June 30, 2011 — universities and colleges face a 6.3 percent cut in state funding, or about $84 million, according to the Office of Financial Management.

By late afternoon Thursday, the state’s schools were just learning the exact amount of money each will need to cut.

Western Washington University, which must cut $3 million, announced it would eliminate 14 academic programs, further restrict admissions during winter and spring quarters and reduce financial aid. At other schools — including the UW, which must cut $17 million — budget directors were not yet sure how they would accomplish the reductions.

Higher-education leaders said one of their frustrations is that it seems legislators believe colleges and universities still have fat in their budgets, and can force the schools to be leaner and more efficient by further budget trims.

“There’s a false perception that there is waste and inefficiencies, and that’s really not the case,” Floyd said. “We are at the bone, in terms of what we can do for our institutions in maintaining access and quality.”

The schools said they needed to present a united front to the Legislature this year to make a better case for funding. And several school leaders noted that higher education will play an important role in rebuilding the economy.

“This is when people need us — that’s one of the ironies,” said Charlie Earl, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

The leaders are likely to ask the Legislature for a “floor” — a guaranteed minimum amount of money for higher-education funding — and also greater flexibility to set tuition. Currently, there are limits on how much schools can raise tuition each year.

A governor’s task force on higher-education funding is working to help create a sustainable funding model. The task force, made up largely of the CEOs and other leaders of major companies, will make recommendations to Gov. Chris Gregoire in the fall.

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