Washington's universities and colleges are known for their high quality and innovation. Whether it's the University of Washington's cutting-edge medical research, Evergreen State...

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Washington’s universities and colleges are known for their high quality and innovation.

Whether it’s the University of Washington’s cutting-edge medical research, Evergreen State College’s leadership in student-centered education or South Seattle Community College’s program to teach students both how to speak English and be nurses at the same time, the state’s higher-education system is a vast factory producing everything from Nobel laureates to spinoff companies, from physicians to auto mechanics.

Thank goodness, they’ve been applying some of that ingenuity to the increasing challenge of doing more educating with less state support. Across the board, universities and colleges have been meeting growing demand for college by enrolling more students than the state actually pays for. They cut back elsewhere, including letting salaries lag.

Some four-year colleges are working with community colleges to provide limited bachelor’s degrees — such as an Eastern Washington University electrical engineering degree at North Seattle Community College. The state’s two research universities have suggested a plan that would let their branch campuses — in Tacoma and Bothell for the UW and in Vancouver and Tri-Cities for Washington State University — go to four-year programs.

Those efforts might help educate more people more cheaply and efficiently, but the crush of would-be students expected to peak in 2008 will take more than re-arranging where people are educated. Universities and colleges are stretched too thin to take on more students.

Community colleges were over-enrolled by about 10,000 last year, and now are about 3,400 over. (Part of that improvement was funding for 1,400 slots eked out of last year’s budget.) In 2003, the UW and WSU regents, in a joint resolution, said they would roll back their enrollments to state-funded levels.

But it’s not enough. More students are coming, and the Legislature, as it convenes, faces a $1.8 billion budget deficit. Higher-education advocates are trudging through newspaper offices and the state Capitol, trying to make their case that investment in education will help not just individuals live richer lives but fuel the economy’s recovery and future growth.

That case was not compelling enough to overcome the drawbacks of Initiative 884. Voters soundly rejected the measure, which would have raised $400 million for higher education and $600 million for other education levels — and raised the sales tax.

But the voters’ decision does not silence the question.

The Legislature and the new governor must find solutions, even with the budget deficit, to replenish the fuel of the higher education engine.

Without it, our state’s institutions will lose their exceptional standing among their peers. More of our state’s children will have to go elsewhere for their higher education or, worse, skip it entirely. And the region’s economic potential will be something less. At this low point, advocates are not arguing for vast new investment but money to keep the quality and accessibility from eroding further.

The Council of Presidents, including presidents of the six four-year state colleges, will be pitching for money to shore up faculty and staff salaries that have lagged, to maintain core funding and for more financial aid, says Chairman Thomas L. Purce. As tuition soars, more of the cost of education at state-funded schools has been shifted to the individual and the family. Most hurt are middle-class students, who can’t afford the tuition but have too much money to qualify for financial aid.

Accessibility and affordability weigh heavily on Purce, Evergreen State College president.

“People increasingly are seeing higher education as an individual good,” he says. “The long-term economic success of our economy depends on more people who are educated and contributing.”

Expect tuition to rise again across the board, but so should financial aid. The Legislature also must give universities more of a leash to exercise their ingenuity even more, including approving the proposed performance contracts submitted by the UW and WSU.

Legislative policymakers also should embrace the idea that, as state revenues improve with the economy, more money will go to higher education before other programs.

At minimum this year, the Legislature must maintain the higher-education system.

But if lawmakers are farsighted leaders, they will do more. They will fund more seats in classrooms and invest more money in research, even if it means making painful cuts in other programs.

Kate Riley’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com