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Washington's community and technical colleges brace for big budget cuts

Pierce College is one of the publicly funded community and technical colleges bracing for a drop in state funding.
Courtesy of Pierce College
Pierce College is one of the publicly funded community and technical colleges bracing for a drop in state funding.

Community and technical colleges are bracing for big budget cuts as Washington state faces billions in lost tax revenue.

About 360,000 people attend the state’s community and technical colleges, which are a launching pad for many first-generation college students and people of color to gain post-secondary degrees and certificates.

But those students may face a smaller selection of classes soon. That’s because state tax revenue is projected to drop by almost $9 billion over the next three years, as business closures and widespread layoffs amid the pandemic have led to a sharp downturn in consumer spending.

The governor asked public agencies, including higher education, to map out a possible 15 percent budget cut.

“That’s a big chunk of money,” said Michele Johnson, chancellor and chief executive officer of Pierce College. “When 85 percent of your budget is in personnel and people, you don’t get out of this without impacting people.”    

Budget reductions come at a time when colleges have been incurring higher costs to help students and faculty get the technology needed for virtual instruction, she said.

Johnson said she holds out some hope that her budget will not face that big of a hit. She urged the governor and Legislature to consider the role of community and technical colleges in helping the economy recover by training people for new jobs.

“We are one of the major economic engines of the state,” she said. “If you think about what we’re facing right now, where we’ve got individuals who are unemployed and who are trying to get back to work, that’s precisely who it is that we serve.”

The state’s 34 community and technical colleges are all facing this budget uncertainty. Jan Yoshiwara is executive director of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

“The budget cuts that are being discussed are huge and larger than the cuts that we experienced in the last recession,” Yoshiwara said. “So if that comes to pass, that will put extraordinary pressure, I think, on all of our institutions.”

The State Board for Community and Technical Colleges told the state’s Office of Financial Management that a 15 percent budget cut would result in about 3,700 fewer classes next academic year. It also would mean reduced counseling and employment services for students.

Yoshiwara said community and technical colleges are waiting to get more clarity on the budget in an expected special legislative session.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.