Branch campus cuts won't fix budget crisis, universities say

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by CHRIS DANIELS / KING 5 News

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KING5.com

Posted on November 1, 2011 at 7:23 PM

BOTHELL, Wash. – Joe Avant walks around this University of Washington campus here, just off I-405, and smiles.

“It’s really worked for me,” says the UW senior, “The one on one times with the professor, small classes, really good library, facilities are close. I just really enjoy it.”

But at least one state lawmaker wonders if there is enough return on the investment at schools, like the one in Bothell, and whether the state should continue to fund branch campuses.

“I think we have to look at the locations of branch campuses,” says Kathy Haigh, (D-Shelton), House Education Appropriations Chair.  “It’s going to be a conversation we’re going to have to have in the legislature. There is a significant amount of money, when you have programs, buildings you have to keep up, and all those operations costs you have.”

“If kids can go to other places and get [an education], are the savings real for colleges?” she asks.

The suggestion comes on the heels of Governor Chris Gregoire’s budget reduction plan she unveiled last week. University of Washington President Dr. Michael Young says it could force the UW to find $82 million dollars in reductions. UW has branch campuses in Bothell, and Tacoma.

Washington State University has branch campuses in Spokane, Tri-Cities, and Vancouver. The Tri-Cities campus has 1,536 students this semester. Vancouver has 3,099.

“It’s a non-starter,” says WSU President Dr. Elson Floyd of Haigh’s suggestion. “Closing branch campuses quite frankly is not the solution. It reduces access in a very dramatic way, but it does reflect the severity of the fiscal crisis we find ourselves up against.”

Floyd, who called Gregoire’s proposal as “draconian, at best”, says the branch campuses are vital to providing higher education to people in southeast and southwest Washington.

UW also claims the loss of branch campuses would be devastating. The UW Department of External Affairs provided numbers Tuesday suggesting it has already absorbed cuts of nearly 50 percent in the last three years, including reduced funding for the Bothell and Tacoma campuses.  The UW says the campuses are vital for providing space for students. Last year, UW received 25,000 freshman applications for 5,800 slots. Bothell’s undergrad head count has doubled since 2007.

Larry Seaquist, (D-Gig Harbor), chairs the State House Higher Education Committee, and says he’s been touring the branch campuses this summer. It’s been part of his work for a task force looking into potential cost savings.

“I wouldn’t even want to think about closing branches,” he says. Seaquist says members of the task force also looked at what he called “worst of the worst case scenarios” like the closure of Eastern Washington or Central Washington University.

But ultimately, Seaquist says he decided, “We need more graduates. We can’t cut branches or campuses.”

Haigh says lawmakers will have to be creative to fill the projected funding void.

“The state used to provide two-thirds of a student’s higher education three years ago. It’s now a third of that. It’s completely flipped,” says Haigh, “If kids can be in the same program 20 miles down the road, we have to have that conversation.”

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