State budget cuts could have high costs for Whitties in need

Derek Thurber

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Come next fall, low-income Whitman students may be faced with new challenges in paying for college. In an effort to close a 5 billion dollar Washington State budget gap over the next two years, the 2011-2013 biennial budget discussed by the state legislature this week proposes major cuts to Washington State financial aid.

The proposed budget, which was passed by the House of Representatives and sent to the Senate on Tuesday, April 5, would cut all funding for the Washington State Work Study Program and would decrease the available State Need Grants funds for private college students. Overall, it  represents a total loss of 482 million dollars to colleges and universities across the state over the next two years. Even though this is just a small fraction of the total proposed 4.4 billion dollars in cuts statewide, the legislation could have a significant impact on Whitman students.

Out of the total number of students who currently receive financial aid, five percent receive some sort of aid from Washington State Need Grants. According to Tony Cabasco, the  Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, Whitman currently  receives  400,000 dollars in  State Need Grands.

Although the budget includes an increase of 101 million dollars towards State Need Grants in order to offset increased tuition costs for public schools next year,  the budget changes how grants are determined, resulting in a decreased level of funding for private college students.

“Instead of tying [State Need Grants] to the most expensive universities they want to tie it to the  other  universities  whose tuitions are a bit cheaper,” Washington House of Representatives member Terry Nealy, R-Walla Walla, said. “What that means, then, is that the State Need Grants money available will not be as high for [students] attending private  colleges as it will be for ones attending universities.”

According to House leaders, this was done in an effort to offset the costs of supporting students attending public schools without overburdening the state, which is facing a 5 billion dollar budget gap.

Some Representatives, however, disagree with this shift in policy.

“I am not in favor of [this change],” Representative Nealy said. “I am considering putting an amendment in that would even that out so that the money to private colleges would be the same as that going to public universities.”

President George Bridges and the other private college presidents from Washington State have taken proactive measure to try to counter this budget.

“The presidents of the 10 private colleges in Washington State met in Olympia yesterday to work on communications we will be delivering to legislators this week in support of aid for students,” Bridges said. “The message we are sending is that cutting aid from college students is mortgaging the future of the state. Aid to the neediest students is a small part of the state budget and reducing it will not help fill the fiscal hole reflected in the state deficit.”

In addition to a change in State Need Grants, the proposed budget also cuts all funding for the Washington State Work Study Program. According to the Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB), this cut would represent a loss of an average 6,400 dollars in earnings, which equates to an average 25 percent increase in unmet costs of attending college for each needy student.

HECB President Don Bennett further argued in a legislative report from March 14, 2011 that these cuts could have a greater ripple effect for both institutions of higher education and the state further down the road. According to that report, students who participate in part-time work study like those funded by the Washington State Work Study Program graduate more ready for a career after college. A loss in this funding, and thus these jobs, has the potential to negatively impact the public and private sector years down the road.

Bridges echoed these concerns over the ripple effect of these cuts, believing that this increased cost of attendance could result in students having to drop out or transfer to cheaper, state schools.

“Its really rather upsetting. About 70 Whitman students every year receive a pretty generous scholarship grant from the state because they come from needy families,” Bridges said. “If they cut money from these students it will obviously hurt their chances to continue at Whitman.”

The loss of tuition from students that drop out or transfer could also impact the college’s budget, which relies heavily on tuition.

Although Bridges expressed concerns over this legislation, he remains hopeful that important changes can still be made before the final budget is passed.

“Ultimately, the Senate and House must confer and come to an agreement over the budget and how the state will address the 5 billion dollar shortfall,” he said. “There will be cuts in many programs and I am hopeful that student aid isn’t one of the areas that is ultimately cut.”

Although Representative Nealy agreed that cuts would hurt local students, he also emphasized that somebody is going to have to be affected by budget cuts.

“Overall, there are pretty severe cuts out there to many programs. I don’t like that,” he said. “We are going to make people unhappy, but we are going to have to make some tough decisions if we are going to save our state financially.”

The Senate is expected to release their counter-proposal budget later this week or early next week.

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