Partnering for higher education excellence in Washington State

Posted by Brad Smith
Senior Vice President and General Counsel
 
Governor Gregoire has created a new Higher Education Task Force and asked me to serve as its chair.  In keeping with the task force approach, our group is scheduled to meet four times this summer and early fall to develop a long-term strategic approach to maximizing the impact and return our state receives on its investment in higher education.
 
Our specific charges are (1) to develop a realistic and viable funding strategy that keeps higher education affordable for Washington students; (2) recommend ways to improve accountability for performance among our higher education institutions; and (3) examine whether the governance system for higher education could be updated to become more effective.
 
The challenges are clear.  Our state is home to numerous employers, including Microsoft, that utilize great numbers of employees with higher education degrees.  The future of our state economy is directly tied to these high-skilled workers.  At the same time, our four-year institutions are at the low end in producing graduates with these types of skills and degrees.  And the state budget crisis has put additional financial pressure on all our colleges and universities, making it even harder for them to invest in programs to produce graduates ready to step into these high-demand fields.
 
The solutions, unfortunately, are not nearly as obvious.  Clearly, many of us believe that higher education warrants a higher priority in the state budget, given the role it plays in the long-term health and growth of our economy.  But the budget trade-offs to implement that priority are not easy ones.  So other approaches must also be explored.  The roles played by various types of institutions within our system must be examined and clarified.  Institutions need additional tuition-setting authority, but that must be accompanied by the establishment of clear metrics for institutional performance on everything from financial aid and access to student outcomes.  Incentives should be developed to ensure that students are able to complete their chosen course of study within a reasonable amount of time.
 
These are not new ideas – many of them have been talked about for years.  But it’s the Governor’s hope – and my mission to see – that a diverse group of talented people might come together and bring a fresh perspective to the debate about higher education in our state.  It’s a daunting task, but one that we all are looking forward to taking on.

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Microsoft News Center Staff