Fewer Washington state students would be admitted to the state's universities, and more high-paying out-of-state students would be accepted.

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Fewer Washington state students would be admitted to the state’s universities, and more high-paying out-of-state students would be accepted. Hundreds of faculty and staff jobs would be cut, and the time it takes to get a four-year degree would grow by several semesters or more, in effect raising the cost of going to college.

That’s the grim scenario painted by the presidents of Washington’s three largest universities as they outlined the impact of the latest, most severe cutbacks proposed in higher education in letters to the Legislature this week.

Legislators have asked university and college presidents to sketch out the impact if the state has to cut higher education by $180 million more than the $600 million the governor has already proposed for the next two years. The bigger cuts could be necessary if there’s another large drop in projected tax collections in next month’s revenue forecast, as some legislators fear.

Both state Reps. Larry Seaquist and Reuven Carlyle, of the House higher education committee, described the analysis as an exercise to help legislators understand what would be lost if the budget was cut this severely. But “the numbers are profoundly serious,” Carlyle said. “Within higher ed, we have a particularly difficult scenario.”

In one of the most strongly worded letters, Western Washington University President Bruce Shepard called the proposals “unconscionable” and “untenable.”

“These budget proposals … will undo decades of strategic investment by the people of this state, and take just as long to restore and repair the damage done to quality and access,” he wrote.

“Times are tough, but please know — without state funding and strategic solutions — everything is at risk,” wrote Phyllis Wise, interim president of the University of Washington.

And from Washington State University President Elson Floyd: “Reductions of the proposed level threaten to unravel the fundamental quality of and access to higher education, which has driven the state’s economy for decades.”

Two ways

As requested, the universities looked at the cutbacks in two ways: They listed what they would eliminate if Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed two-year, $600 million cutback in higher education went into effect, and what would happen if schools had to cut an additional 15 percent and 30 percent on top of that.

Gregoire has said that her $600 million cutback represents a 4 percent cut in state funding, after backfilling with tuition increases. But Mike Reilly, executive director of the state’s Council of Presidents, says her cut is more likely to mean a decrease of 5.8 percent to 7.5 percent in state support because it’s unrealistic to raise tuition across-the-board on degrees that already charge a high tuition, such as some graduate programs.

Separately, in the Legislature’s request, the schools were asked how much tuition would need to rise if the schools were to fully make up those cutbacks with tuition increases.

For the UW, WSU and WWU, the answer is a 20 to 30 percent hike in tuition, according to the schools’ projections.

But there is little likelihood tuition would increase by that amount, said UW Vice Provost Paul Jenny, of the school’s planning and budgeting office.

The presidents’ letters

The state is expected to raise tuition to cover some of the lost money — Gregoire has proposed tuition increases of 9 to 11 percent — but making up 100 percent of the cutbacks with tuition is not a realistic alternative, he said.

Still, the presidents’ letters give a sense of the types of cuts being contemplated:

• The UW, which has already frozen in-state admission to 4,000 freshmen a year, could begin rolling back the size of the in-state class by as many as 500 students a year under the worst-case scenario, Jenny said. At the UW, out-of-state residents pay nearly three times as much as in-state students in tuition and fees.

• WWU is planning to cut in-state admission even if the school’s tuition is increased by 11 percent a year in 2011 and 2012. Shepard proposed decreasing in-state enrollment by as many as 670 undergraduates in 2011, and by as many as 2,627 over the course of the biennium if the budget is cut more aggressively. (WSU is not planning to cut in-state student enrollment.)

• The UW projects it would cut 1,000 university jobs under the governor’s budget proposal, and as many as 1,500 jobs under the most aggressive budget-cutting scenario. WSU projects it would cut 550 to 750 jobs, and WWU projects cutting 59 to 92 jobs.

• All three universities predicted that the time it takes to graduate would lengthen, as classes are cut back and students scramble to try to fill slots in their schedules. WWU projected the largest increase in the amount of time it would take to graduate — from today’s average of 4.6 years to an average of 5.7 years if the governor’s proposed cuts are made, and up to 6.9 years if the most aggressive cuts are made.

• The schools would eliminate some of the less-popular degree programs and reduce enrollments in other programs. The UW, for example, is considering eliminating the College of Education’s foreign-language certification program for teachers, and the School of Public Health’s Institute for Public Health Genetics. WWU would reduce enrollments in its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) program to prepare science and math teachers. “The required program eliminations would be devastating,” Shepard wrote.

• The cuts could have a broader impact on the state’s economy. Wise said that for every dollar of state taxpayer support, the UW returns $22 in impact to the Washington economy and generates $1.50 in state and local tax revenue. “Given the magnitude of proposed budget reductions to the UW, the state would experience an immediate loss of economic impact in the billions and direct reductions in state and local tax revenue,” she wrote.

• The UW is also considering some cuts to services it provides to the community, such as reducing or eliminating the work it does to maintain the trees in the Washington Park Arboretum, which are owned by the UW; significantly reducing support for the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network; and eliminating funding for the state climatologist.

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