Evergreen Faces Lowest Ever State Funding, Ballooning Tuition Costs
State-Wide Budget Shortfalls May Spell Further Cuts
By Issac Scott
After six years of sweeping reductions in state funding to The Evergreen State College, state support for the college is at a historic low and may now face major cuts next year, threatening staff layoffs, bigger class sizes, and even higher tuition rates.
Governor Jay Inslee will release his proposed budget at the beginning of December, before the new legislative session convenes in January to finalize the budget.
Since 2008, tuition rates at Evergreen have gone up by 70 percent, while state funding to the college has dropped 44 percent, according to documents from Evergreen’s budget office. The proportion of Evergreen’s budget that comes from the state is now only 38 percent, compared to 68 percent in the 2007-08 school year, and 75 percent in 1990.
This means that student tuition is now the primary source of revenue for Evergreen, rather than state funding.
Since the economic recession started in 2008, the state has a smaller pool of money for education spending, according to the Washington Office of Financial Management (OFM), and K-12 public schools are taking priority over higher education institutions like Evergreen. In 2012, the State Supreme Court ordered the state to dramatically increase funding to basic education in the landmark McCleary case. Meanwhile, revenues from state taxes are at historic lows, which will cause massive budget shortfalls over the next several years, according to the OFM.
Between 2007 and 2014 resident undergraduate tuition went up $3,821. The tuition that now costs $7,845 cost only $4,024 in 2007. Non-resident tuition has increased by $7,500 since 2006, up from $14,083 to $21,603. According to the Washington Budget & Policy Center, Washington has experienced the second steepest tuition increases in the nation due to a 27.8 percent cut in higher education funding since 2008.
“When I came to Evergreen in 1989, the state paid almost 75 percent of the cost of the education of the students,” Evergreen President Les Purce said, addressing budget issues at a town hall meeting last year. “Now it is almost exactly reversed. The cost of education is now shouldered by the students and families, more than it is by the state. Increasingly, public officials are saying higher education is an individual benefit, not a social benefit. We have to think about how we can effectively work politically to turn that around.”
Salaries for faculty at Evergreen lag well behind national averages, 13 percent below the average for other public colleges, according to a study by the American Association of University of Professors. The average salary for full-time professors at Evergreen is around $66,000 compared to $91,000 at Humboldt State University. University of Washington pays its professors an average salary of about $122,000, while the national average for full-time professor salaries was about $104,000 in 2011, according to the National Education Association.
Now the college may be required to make deep budget cuts next year.
Last year, the state staved off more tuition increases by providing Evergreen with a 5 percent boost in funding. But this year, the governor’s office has asked the college administration to prepare for a 15 percent cut in its next operating budget.
According to a report by the OFM, the solutions that covered the shortfall in 2013 are no longer available this time around. Previously, the state temporarily redirected funds from other projects, and saved around $350 million by expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
“Barring an unforeseen dramatic rise in economic activity and revenue collections,” the report states, “we will face another sizable shortfall when we begin work on the 2015–17 budget.”
Washington state taxes as a percentage of personal income are at historic lows, equaling about 5 percent of personal income today compared to 7 percent in 1990. According to the OFM report, if taxes were at 1990 levels, the state would have about $15 billion in additional revenue over the next two years—an amount larger than the state’s total spending on higher education. Washington is one of seven states without a personal or corporate income tax.
Julie Garver, director of governmental relations for Evergreen, said the college will be faced with three options if the college is forced to make the cuts: increase the student-to-teacher ratio, raise tuition, or intentionally reduce enrollment. Garver is in charge of representing Evergreen to state, local, and federal governments and advocating for its interests.
“We have told the legislature that we are going to pull the enrollment lever,” Garver said. “We are not interested in raising tuition or watering down quality.”
Garver said the college will resist raising tuition because Evergreen has the highest percentage of low-income and Pell Grant eligible students among Washington public colleges, so the student population would be disproportionately affected by further tuition increases. Between 2010 and 2012, according information provided by the Office of Government Relations, Evergreen saw a 12 percent increase in financial aid applications. For the 2013-14 school year, 33,557 students in Washington were eligible for the State Need Grant, but did not receive one due to a lack of funding.
Instead, Evergreen will have to downsize by about 630 students if the budget cuts take effect, with proportional decreases to faculty and staff.
“It is important to be aware of the limited budget environment we’re in at the state level,” Garver said. “But our message to the state is to continue the reinvestment we saw in the past year. The state has ambitious goals for degree completion, and we need help to boost faculty compensation, increase computer science programs, and bring in more Latino/Latina students.”
In spite of the budget shortfall, Washington state recently unveiled ambitious plans to improve higher education in the state. In 2013 the Washington Student Achievement Council established new goals for 70 percent of adults to have a postsecondary degree by 2023, with greater affordability of higher education. However, at this time, no specific policy recommendations to achieve this have be released.
The massive evaporation of state funding to Evergreen since 2008 comes amidst the continuing recovery from the financial crisis, and an ongoing battle between the Washington State Supreme Court and the state legislature over education funding, stemming from the landmark 2012 McCleary case. In that case, the court unanimously ruled that Washington was failing to adequately fund basic education, a right enshrined as the “paramount duty of the state” in the state constitution. The court ordered the legislature to increase funding to basic education by between one and two billion dollars over the next several years. In September, the court found the legislature in contempt of court for failing to provide a plan of how it will boost funding.
Higher education was left out of the definition of basic education, meaning that increasing the flow of resources to K-12 schools will take away money from public colleges. Because colleges are part of unprotected discretionary spending in Washington, the 9 percent of the state budget devoted to higher education is on the chopping block, while the budget for K-12 is protected by state and federal requirements. Initiative 1351, on the upcoming Nov. 4 ballot, would accelerate this process by reducing K-12 class sizes by 12 percent, hiring around 15,000 teachers and building new schools.