There is nothing like a deep recession to test the genuineness of our belief in core principles. One that is particularly at risk this time is support for colleges and college students in Washington.

Washington's budgetary situation is dire. Looking at a $5.1 billion deficit in the upcoming two-year budget cycle, universities, community colleges and many other state agencies have been tasked with identifying how to cut spending by 20 percent.

Beyond the obvious elephant in the room - the nationwide collapse of the housing and banking sectors - the state arrived at this sorry pass by spending like there was no tomorrow and by over-relying the sales tax. Sales plunge whenever the economy dips, a predictable emergency that recurs at least once per decade.

Now, just as older workers need to return to college for job retraining and younger citizens opt for higher education in a tough employment market, the state appears certain to make big cuts in this area. But we should work hard to minimize impacts on universities and colleges, which hold the keys to future prosperity.

In the short-term, constrained by economic realities and citizen-mandated K-12 funding initiatives, there may not be much that can be done to minimize the damage. New taxes to bolster college funding aren't worth proposing in the present climate.

In the longer run, Washington needs to take a hard look at higher education to make sure citizens are receiving full value for their hundreds of millions in funding. In this sense, the current crisis can be a painful opportunity to make sure these vital institutions are configured to impart top-level job skills.

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