Education matters: State’s Running Start is running red

Exceptionally hot metal glows red. Unfortunately, the same is true for Running Start, the exceptionally hot program under which young people go to college while still in high school.

  • Wednesday, April 9, 2008 5:00pm
  • Opinion

Exceptionally hot metal glows red. Unfortunately, the same is true for Running Start, the exceptionally hot program under which young people go to college while still in high school.

Running Start is hot because it not only provides a stimulating educational challenge for students. It also saves a lot of money for parents and taxpayers. Colleges gain, too, from having these highly motivated students on campus.

But in one crucial respect our state’s colleges lose big with Running Start: we go into the red by $35 million collectively each year.

Running Start well deserves saving. Students who participate typically make excellent use of the opportunity. One recent Running Start graduate went on from Bellevue Community College to Oxford University in England as a Rhodes Scholar. Others have led our student government, produced major events, won top awards, and generally added in many ways to the BCC learning environment – enriching themselves and all around them.

Running Start is a highly efficient use of tax dollars, as well – a “two for the price of one” deal. When students graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree simultaneously, as they frequently do, taxpayers save the cost of two years of state support for that student’s education. And because Running Start students do not pay tuition, their families save a collective $30 million each year.

But this excellent program could collapse under the weight of its own success, the weak point being an inadequate level of state funding for the program: the state reimburses colleges for only about 60 percent of the actual cost of educating each Running Start student. This was not a significant problem 15 years ago, in the program’s early days, when the number of participants was low and the funding shortfall was $900 per student.

Today, however, more than 17,000 young people – 10 percent of all high-school juniors and seniors in the state – take college classes through Running Start. The average number of credits each student takes has grown, as well. Now, instead of simply assigning Running Start students to empty seats in existing classes, an early practice that entailed few added costs, colleges must add more seats – many more seats.

The result: a funding shortfall of $3,000 per Running Start student, more than triple the original deficit. When a college serves more than 1,000 Running Start students each year, as BCC does, that adds up fast – to more than $3 million.

Red ink of that magnitude is not something any college can absorb without cutting important corners elsewhere.

Colleges don’t have the option to refuse Running Start enrollments. Nor would we want to. BCC and its sister colleges are committed to providing an open door to education for all and we are proud of the beneficial impact we have on these young lives.

The state’s current approach to funding, however, is not sustainable. It is generating more red ink each year, as more and more students take advantage of the opportunity, thus putting the program itself at risk.

To shore up the program’s funding, the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges has asked the Washington state legislature to begin a gradual, five-year transition to full funding for Running Start. Under this approach, the state would increase the total community college allocation by $7 million in each of those five years, eventually covering the full $35 million shortfall. Although it does not appear that this request will be funded this year by the Legislature, it is important that a solution be found soon.

Running Start is hot because it works on so many levels, but it is running short of fuel. Running in the red could slow Running Start’s highly successful track record at educating students.

Jean Floten is president

of Bellevue Community College

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