Don’t backslide on higher education

Seattle Times, December 1, 2008

At a recent question-and-answer session during a family weekend held by one of our colleges, a mother whose household had lost much of its savings due to the current economic crisis handwrote a note for the college president. She didn’t want to ask the question publicly.The president saw fear, worry in her face. He read her question: What plan does the college have to help families like hers that will have trouble paying their children’s tuition bills?

The president reassured her, but he has concerns, too.

The concern: Funding for higher education.

Even as Washington state faces a burgeoning projected deficit in the budget, we must not reduce support for our public colleges and universities, nor for need-based financial aid given to Washington’s poorest college-bound students. The state’s future depends heavily upon a thriving comprehensive system of higher education, both public and private.

As the presidents of the 10 independent colleges and universities in Washington, we share the resolute belief that Washington must remain a leader in higher education, providing its public colleges and universities with funding adequate to sustain academic programs and also granting the neediest students, those who attend both public and private colleges and universities, sufficient financial aid to complete their studies successfully.

Our public institutions have already been asked to cut $36 million from their budgets this fiscal year. They have been asked to prepare for up to $600 million more in cuts from their budgets in the next biennium. The negative effects from such deep cuts will ripple through the region’s economy for years.

No one can say with certainty when turbulence in the markets will end or how deep or long the current recession will run. But we can state with absolute certainty that during economic slowdowns, more people turn to colleges and universities to advance their education toward building better careers. Reducing support for higher education will handicap the persons most motivated and most likely to find new and better positions in the work force.

The colleges and universities we represent depend upon our state’s public institutions. Our schools routinely enroll transfer students from the community colleges. A high percentage of our outstanding graduates go on to seek advanced degrees, often at public research institutions. And we rely on and recruit from UW and WSU for newly trained Ph.Ds to serve as faculty members on our campuses.

Public colleges and universities must not be a “budget balancer.” All sectors of our diverse system of higher education must be strong if we hope to provide education of the highest quality to state residents.

We are also concerned that all students — at public and private institutions — receive the most financial-aid support possible to continue their educations. Washington claims a proud history of consistently offering need-based aid to residents attending college even during economic downturns. Among the things we worry about is the possibility that in this recession many talented people will miss out on a college education because state-supported financial aid is inadequate.

We applaud the Gates Foundation’s recent commitment to increasing the number of students from low-income families who complete college. We should follow the foundation’s visionary lead by solidifying and expanding the need-based financial support the state provides these students. This is imperative, even in this budget downturn during which our state expects to bring in more than $31 billion in general-fund revenue in the coming biennium.

The societal benefits of academic success are legion: lower levels of unemployment, reduced reliance on public assistance, increased consumption of goods and services, and increased contributions to the tax base.

All of us will hurt if we backslide in our commitment to higher education. Balancing the state budget on colleges or universities, or on our students, won’t lessen the burden. If anything, the burden will increase as the capacity of our academic institutions to fuel our economy stalls.

And we think this result is far more costly than investing adequately in our colleges, universities and most needy students. The costs of reducing their support will far outweigh the near-term fiscal gain and only add to the economic turmoil surrounding us.

What most economists are saying about the larger financial landscape is also true about education: now is not the time to retrench, but to think strategically about the future, to invest in the most promising and essential of assets in our society: informed and well-prepared leaders of tomorrow.

A version of this column was sent as a letter to Gov. Christine Gregoire from the presidents of the state’s independent universities and colleges: Robert J. Spitzer, Gonzaga University; Kathleen Ross, Heritage University; Loren J. Anderson, Pacific Lutheran University; David R. Spangler, Saint Martin’s University; Philip W. Eaton, Seattle Pacific University; Stephen V. Sundborg, Seattle University; Ronald R. Thomas, University of Puget Sound; John McVay, Walla Walla University; George S. Bridges, Whitman College; and William P. Robinson, Whitworth University.