Washington colleges, universities brace for big budget hit

By The Associated Press

SEATTLE — Washington’s public colleges and universities are preparing for large budget cuts because of the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

The Seattle Times reports the state is expected to slash funding, since higher education dollars aren’t protected by the state constitution in the same way K-12 dollars are.

With the coronavirus pandemic expanding this spring, universities lost hundreds of millions in residence hall rents, meal plans, parking fees and sports tickets when schools closed their campuses. At community colleges, many hands-on vocational programs were canceled.

When — or if — students return, campus life will likely be different, with many lectures taught online and dorm rooms reconfigured to keep people apart.

“I’m a little worried people don’t understand quite how bad this is going to be,” said Western Washington University English professor Bill Lyne, president of United Faculty of Washington State, a faculty union for four Washington public schools.

Higher education can be cut because it’s considered discretionary. While Washington’s Constitution enshrines education as the state’s paramount duty, few believe that includes learning beyond 12th grade.

In the current fiscal year, the state appropriated $2.2 billion for higher education, including $377 million in student financial aid. Colleges and universities collected $1.5 billion in tuition and fees.

During the 2008 recession, higher education institutions were among the hardest-hit state agencies. State funding per student declined by about 35 percent in Washington between 2007 and 2012. Only five other states cut higher-education funding by a higher percentage than Washington during the recession years.

Colleges and universities laid off workers, eliminated academic programs, restricted admissions, increased class sizes, decreased the number of advisers, and froze faculty recruitments and salaries.

Legislators are expected to return to the Capitol this summer for a special session to help fix the impending budget crisis, and it’s possible they could amend a law capping tuition. But leaders acknowledge it’s going to be hard to raise tuition much anyway, because so many families are dealing with dire financial problems too.

Earlier this month, state Budget Director David Schumacher asked many state agencies to show how they might cut 15 percent of their state budget appropriations. Exercises like this one show “how damaging things get if you’re doing it with all cuts,” he said.

If such a cut came to pass, “it will be devastating,” UW President Ana Mari Cauce told the UW Regents during a meeting this month. “It will hurt students, it will lead to an absolutely diminished recovery for the entire state. We will do everything in our power for that not to happen.”

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