Washington's community colleges are expecting an 18 percent budget cut in the state's next biennium. Guest columnist Amy Kinsel offers specific suggestions to give colleges more flexibility to better serve students and to raise some revenue.
THIRTEEN of Shoreline Community College’s 129 full-time instructors have received layoff notices, along with staff and administrators, and we have been warned that more cuts are coming.
Recently named Washington’s top community college by StateUniversity.com, Shoreline is not alone. Colleges across the state expect to absorb a projected 18 percent cut in the next biennium.
Shoreline enrolls 10,000 students a year; the entire state community and technical college system serves more than 335,000 students annually. Washington’s two-year colleges provide first-rate, affordable basic education, work-force training and academic transfer programs to students who otherwise would not have access to college educations.
Drastically shrinking that system shrinks students’ futures and makes the state’s economic recovery even more difficult. Dramatically raising tuition for students who cannot afford it is also the wrong choice. Clearly the state has less money than before, but it can respond in more intelligent ways.
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Here are some suggestions to help the system weather the current budget storm:
• Lift the ham-fisted state hiring freeze. The freeze saves no money in itself; it just means colleges can’t spend the money they do have efficiently. For example, colleges can’t combine two positions into one because this creates a “new” position.
At Shoreline, we aren’t able to consolidate student services into a single department and cross-train employees to assist students in admissions, enrollment, financial aid and cashiering as needed because this would require rewriting position descriptions for newly defined jobs. Instead, staff must remain in their currently defined jobs for the duration of the freeze.
• Suspend student-enrollment targets. Under current trends, the community and technical college system may lose a third or more of its state funding. It is unreasonable to expect colleges forced to lay off teachers can still educate the same number of students, yet the current enrollment formula requires just that. Relief from existing student-enrollment targets would allow colleges to serve fewer students with the lower funding levels they are now receiving.
• Adjust tuition waivers. The Legislature mandates several tuition-waiver plans. One is the popular Running Start program that allows high-school juniors and seniors to earn college credit as dual-enrolled high-school and college students. Running Start is good for students who accumulate tuition-free college credits — often earning their high-school diplomas and associate degrees simultaneously, but it is not so good for colleges that are not reimbursed for the full cost of educating these students.
• Consider consolidating state higher education boards. The missions of the Higher Education Coordinating Board, State Board for Community and Technical Colleges and Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board overlap, resulting in duplications of administrative staff and waste of state resources. Consolidating and reducing the size of these boards would leave more money for teaching at the colleges.
• Look into partially funding community and technical colleges through property taxes, as other states do. Two-year colleges in Oregon and California are funded by a combination of tuition, general state appropriations and local tax revenues. If colleges in Washington could also be funded in part by local taxes, there would be greater revenue stability during economic downturns.
Community and technical colleges are tremendous assets to the people of Washington. While cuts to state support are certain in these difficult times, such cuts need to be undertaken in ways that will not destroy a system that successfully educates hundreds of thousands of students each year.
Washington’s students deserve to come out at the other end of this terrible recession still able to access affordable, high-quality college educations. Anything else cuts off not only their economic futures but the economic future of the entire state.
Amy J. Kinsel is a U.S. history instructor at Shoreline, chair of the college’s Strategic Planning and Budget Committee and first vice president of the Shoreline Community College Federation of Teachers (local 1950).