Help colleges with money, not chatter

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SEATTLE — It’s not often that talk gets exposed for being empty as swiftly as it was last week.

On Wednesday, the state’s business community issued a clarion call to not only stop slashing our college system, but to expand it dramatically.

The businesses called for boosting the number of kids admitted to college here by 5,000 per year in just the areas of science and health. That’s no small idea. It’s the equivalent of adding a public university roughly the size of Washington State.

Though pricey, it is, as the businesses said, the single best act the state could take for its future quality of life and economy.

But then the very next day, Gov. Jay Inslee proposed ending some tax exemptions to, among other things, boost science and health-care enrollment in the state college system. Yet here’s how the Association of Washington Business, a group that had joined in Wednesday’s clarion call, responded to that:

“While we understand and support Gov. Inslee’s desire to increase funding for education, we do not support raising taxes. Whether it’s called a tax increase or ‘closing a loophole,’ the result is the same: Families and employers pay the government more money.”

Right. Except that this amorphous, hungry-sounding “government” is the same thing that runs the college system they called critical and imperative just a day before!

I don’t know that I’ve seen a case of cognitive dissonance as acute as what’s going on with business leaders and our higher- education system.

Every year, it gets laid out in graphic detail how state budget cuts have hammered the University of Washington and other public colleges.

Tuition has soared because the state slashed the subsidy. Classes are jammed. Most troubling, the schools are turning away kids in droves who want to become computer scientists or engineers.

Local companies sound regular alarms about how foolish all this is. They say they have thousands of jobs going wanting because this state isn’t producing enough graduates.

It’s a problem with the simplest solution. Just throw money at it.

I know that sounds blithe, but it’s true. Unlike in the K-12 system, where there’s a major debate about reform, nobody is suggesting the computer-science or engineering programs at the UW need big overhauls.

Yet last year computer science turned away an astonishing 75 percent of UW students who wanted to major in it. The reason? Not enough funding for more slots. End of story.

But if someone suggests raising real money to add seats, business comes down with a case of the Eymans.

Their argument is that the state has plenty of revenue and should just cut less important things. These less important items are seldom named. What we get instead are aspirations about how critical higher ed is, with no support to actually pay for it.

Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on them. Their hearts, if not their wallets, are in the right place on this one. But the hearting and hoping isn’t stopping us from falling to the bottom.

The national State Higher Education Executive Officers, which looked at how states financially support their public colleges, reports we ranked 49th out of 50 last year. By two dollars per student we barely beat Florida for dead last. Bow down to Washington!

With the economy recovering, if we can’t find some real money — not study money — for these schools, then maybe we should stop talking about how we value them so much.

Danny Westneat can be reached at dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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