Senate Ways and Means Hosts Higher Ed Discussion

The Senate Ways & Means Committee met yesterday, January 21, to hold a work session on the budget outlook for higher education in Washington State. Those presenting included Ways & Means Staff, two and four year higher education institutional representatives and staff from the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC). For a full agenda please click here.

Budget & Enrollment Situation

Senate Ways & Means higher education staffer, Maria Hovde, kicked off the work session by providing an in depth presentation on the budget situation of higher education. Composing 9% of the entire Washington State Budget, the two and four year sectors, as well as Washington’s robust financial aid programs, total more than $2.7 billion. Additionally, more than 250,000 students are participating in Washington’s public higher education system.  While the higher education sector has seen a small increase in overall state spending through the years, it is due in large part to a growing financial aid program, not increased state support to the institutions. In fact, according to Hovde, financial aid now accounts for 22% of higher education spending, as opposed to 8% in 1990. Additionally, state funds to institutions have been on the decline since 1989 and have seen significant drops since the start of the great recession.

Hovde also spent time covering enrollments trends at Washington’s higher education institutions. While all have seen dramatic increases over the past years, due in large part to a decline in the overall numbers of K-12 students, and with individuals choosing to return to school with a meager job market, these trends are beginning to see a decline. For the 2012 academic year the higher education sector reported a 1.8% decline in overall enrollments.

Following Hovde’s presentation the committee spent time covering three prominent Washington financial aid and college savings programs – the State Need Grant, College Bound and GET.

Washington’s Aid Programs

The State Need Grant financial aid program, administered by the WSAC, serves over 75,000 students each year in 68 institutions throughout Washington. However, 31,000 students remain un-served. Much of this is in large part due to the Great Recession. Policy makers will be grappling with figuring out how to serve as many students as possible, while balancing the needs of the other sectors of government.

The College Bound Program, also administered by the WSAC, encourages low-income, middle school students to choose a path that will lead to educational success after high school. The program promises tuition (at public institution rates) and a small book allowance for income-eligible students who sign up in the 7th or 8th grade, work hard in school, stay out of legal trouble, and successfully apply to a higher education institution when they graduate. Currently the program has over 125,000 active participants.

Current Executive Director of the WSAC, Don Bennett, spent the final portion of the financial aid conversation covering Washington’s Guaranteed Education Tuition program (GET). GET is a 529 plan administered by Washington, helping families save for college. With GET, an account is guaranteed to keep pace with rising tuition and can be used at nearly any public or private college in the country. GET has come under fire in recent months with policy makers nervous of its funding status. Because tuition has had to increase in recent years to keep pace with declining state funds, the GET program’s financial soundness has been called into question. It is evident; however, no consensus exists on what to do about the program. Conversations in the legislature in the coming months will be important to the future of GET.

Sector Stakeholders – Evergreen’s Julie Garver

For the final agenda item the committee heard from key stakeholders, including, representatives of the public baccalaureates. Paul Francis, Interim Executive Director of the Council of President’s, kicked those conversations off with a presentation covering the four-year public baccalaureate sector. Among items covered, Francis spoke to the achievements and concerns of the sector. Achievements include, being a national leader in graduation rates, serving underserved students and maintaining commitments to quality educational opportunities for all. Concerns include Washington’s national rank of last regarding total per student funding levels, Washington’s low participation rates and declining state funds. Francis ended, however, with a solution towards a step in a positive direction.  Outlining the Council of President’s $225 million investment proposal, Francis spoke to the opportunities that exist with new state investments. For a full explanation of the proposal please see our previous blog post.

Following Francis the committee heard briefly from representatives of the four year schools. Among those presenting was Evergreen’s Julie Garver, Director of Governmental Relations. Garver touched on Evergreen’s strengths as a public institution in Washington and the opportunities available as we move forward. Advocating for the Council of President’s $225 million proposal, Garver indicated Evergreen is ready and able to move forward to continue meeting the higher education needs of the State of Washington.