Save Higher Ed

Why do we care about our state’s four-year higher education institutions?

It seems like an obvious point, but it’s worth articulating. The academic answer is that our economy needs bachelors degrees; specifically, by 2018, 67% of jobs in Washington state will require postsecondary education. Plus they bring lots of economic impact, attract federal grant money, employ tens of thousands of people, and help develop new technologies.

But that seems sort of dry and removed from the average person’s daily life. The real reason is very personal: we want our kids to be able to go to school in their own state and then get a job and stay here. And that possibility is significantly at risk right now.

If you haven’t been paying attention to the state budget over the last few years, it turns out that a big portion of what our state colleges and universities rely on in terms of state funding has melted away. For example, over the last 18 months, the UW has lost 37% of its state funding. And unfortunately, what state money pays for at our four-year higher education institutions is access for in-state students.

The reason that state funding for higher ed has been falling is fairly obvious. It’s been a tough couple of years, the legislature has had to cut a billions toward a balanced budget, and higher ed is one of the biggest “discretionary” items in the budget. The legislature did agree to tuition increases to counteract some of the cuts, but it still resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars less for those institutions.

The whole reason that the legislature funds higher ed in the first place is because they see the public good of subsidizing education for our population. It’s that subsidy that allows the concept of “in-state” tuition to function. Which gets us back to that whole “less opportunities for Washington students” thing. With less state funding, those institutions can only add more enrollment by adding students who pay full freight…namely out-of-state kids.

The Governor has recognized this as a major issue, not to mention one that’s likely to get even worse in the next biennium when we have to cut additional billions. She’s formed a Task Force that’s going to look at three issues:

  1. How we fund higher education in the state (i.e. – are there other ways to continue to pay for public post secondary education besides general fund allocation and state-set tuition?)
  2. How we measure performance and accountability (i.e. – what are we asking the state’s four-year higher education institutions to do with our money, what outcomes do we expect, how do we measure them and what are the accountability mechanisms to ensure those outcomes are being achieved?)
  3. How do we increase efficiencies (i.e.-what can be taught online? what can be saved through innovations by group purchasing? how can we streamline administration?)

The Task Force – chaired by Microsoft VP (and Prosperity Partnership co-chair) Brad Smith is working on a set of recommendations for the upcoming legislative session that can address some of these issues. And it’ll be interesting to see how the legislature reacts this time around to proposals like tuition flexibility or changes in student enrollment and financial aid based on state funding levels. Prosperity Partnership will definitely participate in the conversation – as we did in 2007 – and we’ll keep you in the loop as things move forward.

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