State universities need help through pandemic

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Attending college in Washington state could look very different — and not in a good way — next year and in the years that follow.

The coronavirus pandemic will force deep cuts in funding for the state’s five public universities (as well as The Evergreen State College), while efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 will result in changes in the way classes are offered as well as student housing options.

It’s best we prepare ourselves to deal with the changes ahead. Meanwhile, it’s perhaps even more important to approach each new challenge by also considering ways our state universities can once again offer most students a robust learning environment that pays dividends beyond what is learned in classrooms.

Seattle Times reporter Katherine Long addressed the potential changes in a recent article looking at the tough financial situation for colleges after the coronavirus pandemic.

“The virus lockdown has also struck at the heart of what makes college years so satisfying — the intellectual rewards of wrestling with new ideas, developing a passion for a subject, building friendships with people from other states and countries, living on one’s own. In March, most college students were forced to return home, trying to make what they could of the college experience through the blue light of a computer screen,” Long wrote.

In addition, she wrote, the huge classes in lecture halls might be replaced with online learning, while dorms will be reconfigured to promote social-distancing efforts.

As sales tax revenues plummet, deep cuts will have to be made to the state budget for at least the next three years. Since higher education is not protected by the state constitution from budget reductions in the same way K-12 schools are, colleges are going to painfully feel the budget ax.

“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 (Eastern, Western and Central Washington universities and The Evergreen State College).

Lyne’s concern is well placed.

State universities and colleges not only provide an important and lasting education foundation for Washington residents, but they are critical to our economy. We need college graduates to fill jobs that have traditionally allowed Washington’s economy to thrive.

As the schools try to deal with budget cuts, they could consider raising tuition. That is counter productive as it can price many people out of going to college. The lower enrollment will then reduce overall revenue for the schools and exacerbate the financial woes.

Yes, like or not, state colleges will look quite different for the near future, but the goal should be to help them remain healthy financially so they can soon return to providing robust, on-campus educations.