Session Update: Bills are dying, funding is limited and higher ed is in wait-and-see mode

There’s a flurry of activity in the halls of Olympia right now as the Legislature approaches major session deadlines. Since session began on January 9, lawmakers have introduced over 2,000 bills in all the various committees.

Of those 2,000 bills, we know that over 300 have either a policy or fiscal impact to the UW. That number will shrink as bills “die in committee” (as described below), but demonstrates just how busy Olympia is right now.

As of last Friday, any bill that didn’t pass out of a House or Senate policy committee is now “dead.” This Friday is the fiscal cutoff, which is another big deadline. For a bill to move on it will need a majority of votes from the committee that makes fiscal decisions such as the House Appropriations and Senate Ways & Means. The bills that don’t get a vote or fail to get enough votes will also meet their demise.

So what are the prospects for higher ed investment? So far, legislators seem cautiously optimistic that they can incrementally boost funding in areas like financial aid, but many are hesitant to fully commit due to the uncertainties around K-12 funding.

Lawmakers are facing a legal mandate to fully fund basic education, due to a Washington Supreme Court lawsuit known as the McCleary case. Right now, legislators from both the Senate and the House each have their own proposals on the table, but they differ dramatically in price tag and content. It will be difficult to know exactly where higher education will stand as a priority until lawmakers get closer to a K-12 funding compromise.

In the meantime, UW Impact and higher education advocates continue to talk to legislators about the most important issues for higher ed. Top among them is a push to fully fund the State Need Grant, which provides financial aid to Washington’s most low-income students.

Last year, some 24,000 students were eligible for financial aid dollars, but failed to receive any due to budget shortfalls. The high-cost of college is keeping too many students away from pursuing a college degree at a time when our economy desperately needs more graduates.

In the next five years, Washington state will have some 740,000 job openings, according to a Washington Round Table Report. The report finds that most of those jobs will require at least some college or training after high school, yet just 51% of Washingtonians currently have a postsecondary credential.

Many of those job openings are in high-demand fields like engineering, science and technology. The Seattle Times recently described the challenges created by high demand for highly competitive degrees in UW’s School of Engineering. Due to resource constraints, only a third of UW students who apply to the computer science major get in, and fewer than half get into any engineering program at all.

In response to this demand, the UW has prioritized the expansion of these and other high-demand degrees in its legislative agenda. The UW, like other four-year Washington institutions, needs investment in new buildings, classrooms and funding to expand their engineering programs and produce the jobs our economy needs. In recent surveys, alums and advocates have told us they care about building this capacity for UW students as well.

Investment in higher ed really can’t wait. We will be tracking these issues and many others as session continues to roll along – stay tuned for updates and opportunities to get involved!