Share story

LEGISLATIVE candidates are hitting the streets just as college students are preparing to hit the books. Both face tough — and connected — choices.

College students must figure out how to earn degrees and certificates without drowning in student debt. State candidates elected in the Nov. 4 election will head to Olympia and make hard budget decisions that will directly affect the cost of attending college.

The two-year spending plan lawmakers approve next session will influence everything from college tuition and course offerings, to academic advising and campus construction projects.

At the intersection of those decisions is Washington state’s economy and the opportunities it provides for better jobs and greater prosperity for all Washingtonians. The answer: amply fund community and technical colleges and universities.

Although the legislative session is still months away, K-12 school funding will surely take center stage. Lawmakers must come up with an estimated $1.2 billion to $2 billion in the next two-year budget period to comply with the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which ordered the Legislature to make progress each year to fully fund K-12 schools by 2018. But the Legislature can’t afford to stop there.

In today’s economy, a high-school diploma is a starting point, not a finish line. A college education is the only real chance students have to earn a comfortable wage and survive future economic downturns. And, our state’s economy depends on higher levels of skills and knowledge. That’s why the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee adopted the goal that 70 percent of adults have a postsecondary credential by 2023.

Increasing funding for K-12 schools while neglecting higher education would be like starting a race but tripping the runners.

Unlike K-12 education, college and university budgets are not protected by the state Constitution. During the height of the recession, state funding for higher education was slashed. Students shouldered much of the burden in the form of double-digit tuition increases and heavier student loans.

To its credit, the Legislature moved mountains to protect higher education from further cuts in the current two-year budget, and even made some much-needed investments, including more money aimed at student achievement. Still, colleges and universities have not fully recovered from deep cuts made during the recession.

When adjusted for inflation, the current state budget spends 23 percent less each year for community and technical colleges than in 2009. Tuition increases and other resources are helping to fill the void, but students are bearing the burden. Community and technical college students now pay 35 percent of their higher education, up from 24 percent in 2009. Our community and technical college tuition is now the 16th highest in the nation. It used to be 24th.

More than 33,500 eligible students are unable to get a State Need Grant due to insufficient funds. A majority — 18,774 students — attend community and technical colleges.

Public four-year universities, the intended destination for 43 percent of our students, have faced devastating cuts as well.

Clearly, now is the time to reinvest in higher education along with K-12 schools. The strength of the state’s economy and the opportunities it provides are directly tied to the education of our residents.

Community and technical colleges fill a vital role in higher education because they offer students quick entry into well-paying jobs, or the ability to transfer to a university at a fraction of the cost.

The nearly 400,000 students these colleges serve each year each year create a wave of productivity and spending power that washes through the economy and elevates us all. The state’s 34 community and technical college and their former students add $11 billion annually to the state’s economy, according to a 2011 report by Economic Modeling Specialists.

When the next legislative session starts in January, college students will be studying for a more promising future while new legislators take the oath of office. When it comes to higher education, both promises will shape the lives and livelihoods of Washington residents for years to come.

Beth Willis is chairwoman of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. Shaunta Hyde is vice chairwoman.