Francesca Cauce, a high school junior in Miami, is considering attending the University of Washington in 2012 and paying out-of-state tuition. Yet her aunt, Ana Mari, the UW’s Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, worries that further cuts in higher education funding, as forecast in Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed budget, will erode academic excellence for an institution already stretched beyond its capacity.

“As the College that serves the largest number of students, we’ve worked very hard in the last few years to continue to provide students with an excellent education, despite having fewer faculty and teaching more students,” said Cauce, who is the Earl R. Carlson Professor of Psychology. “I’m not sure how much more we can stretch without compromising quality.”

Many of Cauce’s colleagues share that view. Although the budget would reduce state support of higher education by about 4.2 percent, or $220 million, and the UW would lose an estimated $190 million over the 2011-13 biennium, the university’s Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering, Ed Lazowska, believes that is only the tip of the iceberg.

“It’s important to be clear about the enormous shift in funding that is taking place,” he said. “UW’s state funding for the 2007-09 biennium was $792 million, or roughly $400 million a year. State funding for the 2011-13 biennium, as proposed by the Governor, would be $451 million, or roughly $225 million a year – a total cut of nearly 50 percent in a four-year period. Tuition has risen considerably, but not nearly by this amount,” Lazowska added.

Elson Floyd, president of Washington State University, the state’s other research university, worries that if current trends continue, more profound longer-term changes are in store for higher education statewide. “If the Governor’s budget is enacted, we would have to engage in a fundamental restructuring of Washington State University. That would include looking carefully at departments, schools, programs, and at all of the services we provide,” Floyd said.

“I remain concerned about the larger issue of providing higher education to a broad cross-section of Washingtonians. The pattern of double-digit tuition increases, which continues under this budget proposal, poses real dangers to both access and affordability. I believe that policy is not sustainable in the long run.”

Floyd sees more troubling implications for WSU’s reputation as the state’s land-grant institution. “Under this budget, by the end of the upcoming biennium, we would have seen a 49 percent drop in our state appropriation over a four-year period. It is simply impossible to maintain our current array of programs in this financial situation,” he said.

As state education leaders brace for the next round of major budget cuts, some find consolation that state aid for lower-income students would be increased by $92 million.

“We’re very pleased that the Governor has protected student financial aid, and especially the state need grant, although there is a cut in work-study funds,” said Norm Arkans, UW spokesman.

“That’s crucial for keeping access open and higher education affordable, especially as tuition increases in double-digit increments. We do not anticipate that the University’s diverse population of students from all backgrounds would be adversely affected, as long as we can maintain adequate student financial aid from all sources.”

Floyd adds a caveat, however. “Under this budget, WSU would have to reduce the number of enrollments with a significant impact on the number of Washington students admitted. That would hamper the ability of our state’s students to obtain a baccalaureate degree at a public university.”

For university faculty like Lazowska, recent and proposed budget cuts for higher education translate to loss of opportunity for students at a time when the state’s economy needs more students from high-impact fields such as computer science and engineering.

“In 2007, UW Computer Science and Engineering was funded for the first enrollment increase that had been granted since 1999. The 2009 budget cut took away all of that funding, and more. We had not yet hired many of the faculty, staff, and teaching assistants, so we abandoned those positions, and ramped down the enrollment increases that we had initiated. Thus, in Computer Science and Engineering, one of the highest-impact programs at the UW and in the state, the only enrollment increase that had been funded since 1999 – and more – was blown away,” Lazowska said.

“Who gets hurt because of this loss opportunity? To be honest, it is not the large companies such as Microsoft and Google and – they recruit nationally. It is the smaller companies, such as startups, which must recruit from the local workforce. And it is the kids who grow up here, because they are denied the opportunity to become educated for these great jobs,” he added.

Other university administrators, like Resat Kasaba, Stanley D. Golub Chair and Director of the UW Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, fear that budget reductions will compromise the UW’s broader mission. “We are bound to be affected by decisions that aim to cut the university’s budget. The Jackson School prides itself in offering a variety of courses where students are expected to become involved in research and writing. It will be increasingly difficult to supervise such projects, which may force us to alter what we teach and how we teach.”

One of the nation’s premiere schools for international studies, including its renowned China, Korea, Japan and Southeast Asian Studies programs, the Jackson School relies on teaching professionals who have real-world experience in foreign policy, Kesaba explained. “With shrinking resources, we will probably find it increasingly difficult to attract such people. Without the insight of these people who have firsthand experience in public service, our students will miss out on an essential part of their training in international affairs.”

Cauce sounds a further cautionary note. “There is very little room left for stretching. I am very concerned about what this next round of cuts will bring,” she said. “You can go downhill very, very quickly, then going back uphill is a lot harder. The University of Washington is an exceptional institution, and the UW, and the College of Arts and Sciences, provides not only our students, but taxpayers throughout the state, one of the very best investments they can make. Our graduates not only, by and large, stay in the area, and help our businesses and employers by filling critical positions, they create businesses and employment opportunities for others,” she said.

The University of Washington’s “Red Square”. Photo credit: University of Washington/Mary Levin.
The University of Washington’s “Red Square”. Photo credit: University of Washington/Mary Levin.

The Governor’s projected higher education budget would foreshadow other austerity measures that could blunt the state’s academic institutions. As Arkans is quick to point out, Gov. Gregoire’s budget cuts would mean drastic measures such as differentiated tuition pricing. [The state’s overall budget only subsidizes a fraction of the UW’s overall budget, which is primarily earmarked for faculty and staff salaries, he said.]

With regard to differentiated tuition, Arkans was asked if a Governor’s task force on higher education would consider such a measure. “In theory, yes,” he said. “We’ve looked at this in a preliminary way and would be interested in a tuition model that includes differentiated tuition. We would also, of course, need the necessary leeway from the legislature, as it establishes tuition policy under current law.”

WSU President Floyd feels such a strategy is wise. “I have always believed in the importance of allowing the governing boards of an institution the flexibility to make decisions regarding tuition. Clearly there are some high-demand areas in which opportunities for employment following graduation are enhanced, including engineering, business, nursing, and the health sciences generally,” he said. “Particularly in times of severe budget constraint, it is appropriate to allow institutions the flexibility to work with internal and external stakeholders and make their own tuition decisions.”

Ana Mari Cauce points out that the budget figures understate the enormity of the impact to the UW as well as the state’s other public universities such as WSU and Western Washington State University.

“I do not think that it’s entirely accurate to see the cut to the University of Washington as just 4.2 percent,” she said. “In total, the cut to the UW is somewhere between 25 percent and 29 percent. The 4.2 percent figure is based on looking at increased tuition as a replacement for state funds.“

“Because of tuition increases [projected at 11 percent in 2011 and 2012], the UW will not feel the full and crippling effects that would come with a cut over 20 percent, but we shouldn’t ignore that there has been a growing shift away from ‘public support’ of higher education,” she added. “In addition there are a number of other indirect or hidden cuts to the University of Washington, including proposed pension and salary cutbacks or furloughs.”

Arkans is concerned that more and more, families will have to pick up the slack in helping with their children’s already overstrained financial challenges. “What has been happening is that the burden for paying for college has shifted from the state to students and their families. In the short term, this has helped to stem the potential damage. It is not a sustainable strategy for the long term, however.

The University of Washington’s “Quad”. Photo credit: University of Washington/Mary Levin.
The University of Washington’s “Quad”. Photo credit: University of Washington/Mary Levin.

WSU President Floyd is upbeat, however, that his university remains undeterred in upholding its obligations as a land-grant institution. “We remain clear about our mission as the state’s land-grant research university. That mission will not be compromised, but the ways we fulfill it will be markedly different.”

Still, it is undeniable that tuition hikes are merely a short-term stopgap and will not make up for the looming deficits in higher education funding. Lazowska considers the specific impact to the UW College of Computer Science and Engineering alone, one of the nation’s top ten schools in the field.

“Computer Science and Engineering is one of ten departments in the College of Engineering. The high water mark for our university support was approximately $10.6 million a year. Our university support this year is $9.2 million a year. In other words, we have lost approximately $1.4 million annually in the past couple of years, at the department level – about 13 percent.” he said.

At the end of the day, Ana Mari Cauce still believes her niece, Francesca, should attend the University of Washington. “I can honestly encourage her to do so. I continue to be very proud of the education we can offer our students.”

This article was published with permission of the Seattle PostGlobe.

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