On Presidents Day, 24 students from Washington State University Tri-Cities joined students from other WSU campuses in Olympia for "Coug Day" at the Capitol.
That was three times as many students compared with last year, which is not surprising considering college students have a lot at stake in this legislative session. We have seen four years of tuition increases and cuts to higher education, and expect more in the future.
Our goal not only was to lobby legislators, but also to learn more about the legislative process. We prepared with a banquet the night before where we learned more about state government from lobbyists, consultants and legislators.
The next day, we observed committee meetings and sessions on the floor of the House of Representatives. Some were surprised at how easy it is to become part of the process, in terms of signing up to testify before a committee.
Although there were no committees meeting on higher education, we did have a chance to individually speak to legislators, and WSU students had three consistent messages: 1) Keep tuition predictable and affordable; 2) Support financial aid funding; 3) Invest in higher education.
Our group met with local legislators, Reps. Larry Haler and Brad Klippert, and Sen. Jerome Delvin, who listened to our concerns.
We are worried because students almost certainly will have to offset the proposed $25 million cut from the state need grant with an increase in tuition. In addition, there are proposals that would cut work study programs by 47 percent and result in 6,900 fewer work-study jobs available.
House Bill 1666 has the potential to increase tuition by 36 percent.
One of our Women's Success Center mentors told the representatives she doesn't know what to tell a student who will be unable to continue at WSU Tri-Cities if the need grant cuts are enacted. Through our individual stories, I think we showed our representatives some of the faces behind the dismal budget numbers.
Although our local representatives were receptive to our concerns, we walked away unsure of the future of higher education in Washington. With the past and likely future cuts to higher education, students fear college will become an increasingly unbearable cost for low- and middle-class individuals, and widen the income gap between those able to attend college and those unable to afford it.
Students understand that with the overall state budget shortfall, cuts are going to be made somewhere. In general, they will have to come from either higher education or social services.
Neither is an easy decision, but the governor's own task force notes that Washingtonians who only have a high school degree have more difficulty finding work during a recession. In 2009, the average unemployment rate for individuals with a bachelor's degree and higher was 4.6 percent, while the unemployment rate for those with a high school diploma was 10.5 percent.
So it may come down to a question of whether to invest now in higher education or to possibly pay more later in unemployment and social services for those without a college education.
Studies also show the number of jobs requiring post-secondary education will continue to grow, and Washington will remain above the national average in the percentage of such jobs. By 2018, about 67 percent of Washington jobs are projected to require postsecondary education.
If higher education is continually cut, many deserving students in Washington may not get the chance to better their futures and that of the state itself.
-- Amber Eubanks is the vice president of the Associated Students of WSU Tri-Cities. She and 23 other WSU Tri-Cities students participated in Coug Day.