Higher education issues have already played a key role in the 2013 legislative session with debates over funding, rising tuition and the solvency of the Guaranteed Education Tuition program.
TVW recently talked with Marty Brown, executive director of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, to get his take on education policy issues facing lawmakers in 2013.
Brown took over the board, which oversees Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges, in September after serving as former Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget director.
We are now one-third of the way through the 2013 session. What are your impressions so far?
We have had lots of good meetings with committee chairs in the Senate in both Ways and Means and Higher Education and I think they are doing a good job of learning their new jobs and understanding the higher ed system in our state. In the House we have lots of folks that have been there before, but we have done quite a bit of “Community and Technical College 101” with the new members. So I think a lot of it is education on higher education right now and I think there is a growing understanding of the importance of the community and technical college system in the economy and in their local areas and how important we can be to job creation and the education and transfer to four-year schools.
What specific legislation are you keeping a close eye on?
Our main agenda is budget. We were very happy with the legislative budget last year when higher education was no longer on the chopping block. We hope that continues and we get started at least reinvesting in community and technical colleges. Right now we have about 12,000 more full time equivalent students than the state pays for so a lot of our issues revolve around budget. A big issue for us is the state need grant and the fact that currently 31,000 students in the state’s schools qualify for the state need grant – low-income students who did not get the funds because they ran out. There are bills that would add students to the state need grant and we are all in favor of more students being eligible, but we want to make sure the Legislature funds those students who are already in school before we start adding a bunch more students to the state need grant. We have been watching those need grant bills very closely – 21,000 of those 31,000 students are in the community colleges so we have students that didn’t get their funds and are struggling to stay in school.
Obviously tuition is always a hot topic and after back-to-back 13 percent tuition hikes, what can students expect in 2013?
Our budget request did not ask for tuition increases. We asked for more money for students, for faculty and for our system in general and the state need grant so we definitely feel like tuition has gone up enough. On the other hand, if the economy continues to struggle and the Legislature feels the need to cut our state funding, tuition may need to be discussed because we can’t continue to defund higher education. I would say they would be minimal at best. Everybody hopes that we don’t have to increase tuition. We’ll know after the March revenue forecast and caseload forecast what the Legislature can and can’t do.
The Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program has come under fire of late, with some lawmakers saying the state should end the program. How do you envision the future of GET?
I was on the GET board as budget director two different times and we bit the bullet a few years ago by increasing the price and making sure we have a plan to get it back to fully funded and I think it would be a mistake to close it. I think we have done all of things that need to be done to fix it so I think the Legislature should just wait and see how sales and investments go. It’s in good shape right now. If you do any major changes like closing the system, you are going to have to subsidize state money and right now there is no state money in the program.
Gun violence, especially on school campuses, is one issue being looked at closely right now. How are the state’s community colleges reacting?
I know the individual presidents and their staffs have looked but we don’t have a lot of people who live on campus but I know it’s on everybody’s radar screen. We have not had any incidences of significance that have caused any major lock-downs or anything like that but people are on higher alert.
Gov. Jay Inslee recently introduced a jobs package with an emphasis on the aerospace industry, health care and clean energy. Are the state’s community colleges ready to produce workers for those sectors?
Obviously we have been working very hard on aerospace and we like the emphasis there because we worked hard last year to get the Air Washington grant. We have 11 colleges working on different types of aerospace and advanced manufacturing programs. We have programs all over the state that support the aerospace industry, but we also like the emphasis on health care because we also do a lot of nurse training and radiology training and we know we are going to be a key factor in growing those jobs as health care continues to increase. Even in the clean energy, we do lots of programs on clean energy around our state – we have wind programs over in Walla Walla and various water and clean energy programs throughout the state. We feel like we are very aligned with the governor’s plan.
As you look at all of our state community and technical colleges, what programs seem to be in the highest demand right now?
We have a significant number of people who want to get into our machining programs to go to work for aerospace, whether its Boeing or their suppliers. We have a huge call for welding programs. We have more and more cal in our nursing and allied health programs. All of those are not cheap programs to run because they take extensive equipment and we look at all of those as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs because they all revolve around math and a variety of sciences and technologies now. If you even go to the mills in Grays Harbor right now, they aren’t using hand saws. They are using computerized saws to cut timber and make the boards we use. Everything revolves around technology, math and science.
After spending years hammering out the governor’s budget, how has your perspective changed in your new role?
When I started in September, I promised the presidents that I would visit every college and I have done that. I just learn so much from the staff and presidents at those colleges about the differences at all of our schools and how the different economies are dependent on those colleges. When you are the budget director, you are at the 30,000-foot level and now I’m a little closer to the ground. I’m still not on the ground, but you get a lot better perspective about what some of the decisions and some of the budget cuts mean in the local areas. And some good things, too. Last year the Legislature provided $16 million dollars in equipment purchases for the colleges and the presidents and the faculty couldn’t be prouder to show it off. I’ve learned a heck of a lot since I’ve been on the job, that’s for sure. Of course now I wouldn’t have cut the higher education budget as much as I proposed. I think you just see the impacts all across the state and just how important the budget is to individual communities and people.