SPOKANE, Wash. — As the competition for state dollars intensifies with the current state recession and economic downturn, higher education in Washington state faces a crisis of growing proportions, said the presidents of the state’s two research universities, Washington State University and the University of Washington.

“The decline in state support has been going on for well over a decade,” said Interim UW President Lee L. Huntsman. “The reason we’re so worried is that the two research universities that are so essential to our citizens and provide the economic power that will pull our state’s economy into the future – those two institutions are really at risk because we cannot sustain competitiveness at this kind of economic disadvantage.”

As the WSU and UW Boards of Regents meet today at WSU’s Pullman campus for an historic joint meeting, the leaders of both universities expressed their concern yesterday at a joint pre-Apple Cup press conference in Spokane.

“The real issue is about the people of the state of Washington,” said WSU President V. Lane Rawlins. “It’s about the people we can’t serve, the people who grew up believing that if you did well in high school, you would go to one of the universities and complete your education. Now, to many of those people we’re going to say, ‘I’m sorry, there’s no place for you.’”

Both presidents underscored the important decisions ahead for Washington state lawmakers and citizens. “We estimate that in the next five or six years 30,000 more people will be entering our state universities, and we can’t take them,” Rawlins said.

The real consequences were evident in this year’s enrollment figures at both WSU and the UW. “For the first time, record numbers of qualified students at both institutions were simply not able to get spots because we did not have any room for them,” Rawlins said. “Unless we’re able to turn that around, that situation is going to get worse.”

Demographically, higher education faces a daunting challenge now especially because of the growing numbers of young people entering the state’s two research universities, regional universities and community colleges. “Demographically, and in every other way, this is a bad time to be downsizing higher education or limiting access to it,” Huntsman said.

In past decades during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the state experienced economic downturns, but in previous downturns the state not only had to cut higher education support but reinvested later in the decade. “But in the early nineties, they took money out of higher education and never really reinvested, except to draw enrollments,” Huntsman said.
The fact that the nineties were a time of unparalleled prosperity is an irony that was not lost on both presidents. “Even though we’ve had the greatest period of prosperity in our state’s history, our actual per-capita, per-student appropriation has been falling,” Rawlins said. “This has left us in a relatively non-competitive situation.”

Compared with other national competing institutions such as UCLA, the University of Michigan and University of North Carolina, where per-student appropriation ranges from $7,000 to $10,000 annually, in the UW’s case it’s $2,600 per student a year, Huntsman said.

“We know the state is in tough straits economically, and we know this problem can’t be fixed overnight,” he said. “But we’re asking our governor, our legislators, and all of our citizens – for after all, citizens own these institutions – to engage in a conversation and say what do we want to become of these two great institutions? It’s important that we talk about that now.”