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Sunday, May 11, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Universities can't handle growing state population

Seattle Times staff reporter

Newport High School counselor Marla Stewart has never seen it this bad, with student after student being turned down by the state's largest public universities for the coming fall.

Like Interstate 5 on a weekday afternoon, there are too many people wanting in and not enough room. The state's university system has not expanded fast enough to keep pace with the population growth.

"The parents don't understand it's all changed," said Stewart, a college counselor at the Bellevue high school for 12 years.

Enrollment projections show that four- and two-year public institutions need a total of about 36,000 additional state-funded slots by 2010 just to keep the situation from getting worse. And big business in the state is particularly worried about the low production of bachelor degrees by the public universities.

"It's gone beyond being a chronic concern to being a crisis," said Susannah Malarkey, executive director of the Technology Alliance, a consortium of technology businesses, research institutions and high-tech trade associations.

There's no relief in sight. The Legislature, which will kick off a special session tomorrow, is considering an overall increase of only a few hundred slots during the next two years in the face of a $2.6 billion budget deficit.

Universities already enroll more students than the state provides money for, and university officials contend they cannot handle the baby-boom echo pushing its way through high school. Opening the doors to more students, without big increases in state funding, means the quality of education would decline, said Dick Thompson, the University of Washington's director of government relations.

That would mean bigger class sizes, fewer courses and loss of top faculty, he said. "From the student's perspective, they would get less for what they pay for," Thompson said.

Instead, the state's biggest institutions are rationing access. Students need better grades, higher test scores and more extensive backgrounds in math and science than ever before. This is particularly true at the University of Washington, Washington State University and Western Washington University, which enroll about 78 percent of the state's four-year public-university students.

While it's possible for students with average grades to get into those bigger four-year colleges, they increasingly have to look for openings at the smaller public four-year schools or go to two-year community colleges, which have open admission.

It's easier to get into two-year institutions, but students who want to transfer to a four-year school have to wait longer than in the past or in some cases still get turned away. Add in the rising cost of tuition and fees, and the bottom line is clear: It's harder than ever for a Washington resident to get a four-year degree here.

"I've been saying that the dirty little secret of Olympia is that we've been reducing access to higher education, and we haven't talked about it," said Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island, a member of the House Higher Education Committee. "We've just let it happen."

What it takes to get in

Students with good, but not stellar, grades are already getting hit by the college crunch.

In 1997, students with the equivalent of a 3.3 grade-point average and an 1190 SAT score (out of a possible 1600) were automatically accepted at the University of Washington.

Today, it takes the equivalent of about a 3.7 grade-point average and a 1200 SAT score to be automatically accepted at the UW, the state's flagship university. Only 18 percent of Washington students who took the SAT last year met or exceeded that standard.

Students with lower grades and test scores face a more intensive review. The admissions office looks at other factors, such as students' community activism and whether they've had to overcome any personal hardships.

Still, 77 percent of the freshmen accepted at UW had a GPA of 3.5 or higher in the fall of last year. The average student who graduated from high school in Washington in 2001 had a 2.89 GPA.

Marlon Stewart, who has a B average in high school, said he applied to the UW this year and was turned down. He plans to attend Washington State University, which did accept him.

"The UW is just ridiculous," said Stewart, who is Marla Stewart's son. "You have to dedicate your life to school if you want to go there. I have a bunch of friends who didn't even apply because it's so hard."

Tim Washburn, assistant vice president of enrollment services at the UW, acknowledges the bar has gone up, making it tough for Seattle-area students to get into their local state university. UW even has a waiting list for community-college transfer students, who have the grades and courses they need to get in. There's just no room.

"It used to be, 'If I do OK, I'll just go on to college,' " Washburn said. "I don't think it's ever happened that 'I did fine and I should be able to college, but there isn't any room.' I think it's going to be a surprise for a lot of people."

Admissions standards have also increased at WSU and WWU. "We know there are qualified kids out there who have worked hard in high school or community college and want to go on and pursue their education," said Karen Copetas, director of admissions at WWU. "We just have to tell them no."

Talk in Olympia

There has been plenty of talk lately in Olympia about the need to expand enrollment in higher education, particularly after Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said only 8 percent of the company's employees come from public colleges and universities in Washington.

Boeing officials are also pressing lawmakers to provide more money for higher education.

Business is especially concerned about increasing university enrollment, pointing to research that indicates the state ranks near the bottom nationally in the proportion of the population enrolled in public four-year universities.

Some experts believe the scarcity of four-year college graduates stems in part from how Washington's higher-ed system is set up.

The state has 34 community- and technical-college campuses. By comparison, there are six four-year institutions, with five branch campuses. The two-year colleges cost less to attend and have an open-admissions policy.

In the fall of 2000, about 182,000 students were enrolled in two-year colleges in Washington and 92,000 in four-year institutions. Nationally, most students attend four-year universities.

Census figures show that in the past decade, more than a third of the population with at least a bachelor's degree came from out of state, leading some to believe Washington isn't producing enough people with four-year degrees.

But not everyone is concerned about access to four-year colleges.

Sen. Jim Horn, R-Mercer Island, agrees the higher-education system needs to be expanded to keep up with population growth, but said he sees nothing wrong with most students going to community colleges.

"We have to be careful that we don't brand somebody who goes to a technical school as a second-class citizen. Some people are coming out of two-year schools with $70,000 salaries," said Horn, a member of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

He also sees no problem with importing educated workers.

"I think this importing and exporting goes on all the time," Horn said. While it's true that community-college graduates can get better-paying jobs than university graduates, it's not the rule. On average, people with two-year degrees nationally earn around $36,000 annually, about 46 percent less than workers with a bachelor's degree, according to 2001 U.S. Census figures.

Malarkey, with the Technology Alliance, says the current enrollment crunch should not come as a surprise.

"This issue of the baby-boom echo — we've known about it ever since those babies got made," she said. "Starting in the early to mid-'80s it was, OK, in 20 years we're going to have an increased demand for education. The decision not to increase capacity was one made with some foreknowledge.

"So (now) you've got this double whammy of a bigger population of kids needing a higher education, and at the same time more jobs requiring a higher education."

Tuition likely going up

Gov. Gary Locke acknowledges there's a problem. "Without additional state dollars, colleges and universities will not admit more students, and we have a growing number of graduates coming out of high schools, more than ever before," Locke said recently. "Clearly, we must try to provide more funding for higher education."

Yet Locke's proposed budget, as well as proposals put forward by the House and Senate, reduces state funding for higher education. The cuts are partially offset by increasing tuition.

The state has cut per-pupil funding for four-year colleges about 9 percent in the past decade, adjusted for inflation, and made up the difference by increasing the cost to students, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Board. Tuition at the University of Washington, for example, has increased 103 percent in the past decade.

The state Legislature is expected to allow colleges and universities to bump tuition another 12 to 18 percent in the next two years for resident undergraduates.

Locke's budget provides for a small net increase in state-funded enrollment, 230 slots spread among two- and four-year institutions during the next two years, according to the board, which lobbies on behalf of the schools. The Senate proposal would add 314 slots. It's not clear how the House budget would affect enrollment. The board estimates the state needs to add an average of about 4,500 full-time slots annually between now and 2010 to keep pace with demand.

Talk of significantly increasing spending for the university system has never gotten far, even during good economic times, said Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez -Kenney, D-Seattle, chairwoman of the House Higher Education Committee.

"I don't think higher education was high on the radar screen," Kenney said. "It's always been K-12, K-12."

Lawmakers note that while business lobbyists are calling for more funding for higher education, they're also pressuring the Legislature not to increase taxes.

The reality, many legislators say, is that colleges and universities aren't going to get a big boost in state funding for the foreseeable future.

"It's going to continue to be a major dilemma," said Sen. Don Carlson, R-Vancouver, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee. "How we deal with that is going be a discussion in the next election year."

Carlson predicted initiatives may be filed with proposals to provide additional funding for higher education.

In the meantime, high-school counselor Marla Stewart says more and more families are filing appeals when universities reject their children.

"We're staying up late at night working with families," she said. "It has been very difficult for counselors, personally, to see real quality, great kids get turned down when we know these kids would be successful in college."

Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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