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Tri-City college officials optimistic about future

 | Published on 5/22/2009

Local higher education officials are looking beyond the current budget crisis to plans for the future.

Columbia Basin College President Rich Cummins and Washington State University Tri-Cities Chancellor Vicky Carwein spoke to the Columbia Basin Badger Club on Thursday about the state of their campuses given sweeping budget cuts by the state Legislature, and on what they're doing to plan for eventual growth.

"Though there are a lot of reasons to be negative about higher education, I am a hopeless optimist," Cummins said. "We have an ability to solve things creatively for the greater good of the people."

The Legislature cut funding for higher education and other state programs for the 2009-11 biennium to balance a $9 billion budget deficit. About $4 billion was cut from programs and the remaining $5 billion gap was filled using federal stimulus money, freezing salaries and pensions, and one-time transfers from other funds.

CBC lost about $3.4 million in operational money from the state, and Cummins announced last week that the college would shutter a few of its vocational programs to save money. It also will reduce enrollment by up to 1,000 students.

WSU overall lost a net of 10.4 percent, or $54.2 million, of its state funding after accounting for a 14 percent per year tuition increase. Cuts include eliminating 370 jobs statewide, shutting down several academic programs and reorganizing the university's administration.

Cuts to WSU Tri-Cities total $711,000, or about 10 percent of its state funding.

Despite the financial setbacks, Cummins and Carwein were positive about the demand for higher education in the Tri-Cities and expected growth at their campuses.

"The good news is CBC is not going to disappear," Cummins said. "We are going to contract a little."

The college is moving forward with plans to build a new Career and Technical Center starting in June, and Cummins remains hopeful about getting legislative approval for a performing arts center that, with contributions from city governments, could serve the region.

"We have bright things in our future," he said.

Carwein is focusing efforts on building community partnerships, such as the one with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory that built the Bioproducts, Sciences and Engineering Laboratory, which opened last summer.

She also announced she got approval from the administration in Pullman to apply for a Hispanic-Serving Institution designation from the federal Department of Education.

Dick Pratt, vice chancellor for academic affairs, said by telephone Thursday afternoon that the branch campus would have to show 25 percent of its students are Hispanic before it applies. WSU Tri-Cities could meet that standard this fall, but given a June deadline, the application won't be submitted this year.

"It's a long-term strategy," Pratt said.

Getting the designation would allow WSU Tri-Cities to apply for grant funding to strengthen its offerings for Hispanic students, but that also would provide benefits for other students on campus, Pratt said.

Jaime Contreras, director of student affairs, said getting the designation would show WSU Tri-Cities has a commitment to diversity.

"It would be a huge boost to this area because it shows an intentional desire by this community institution to court the fastest-growing population," he said.

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