Posted by Brad Smith
Senior Vice President and General Counsel
Earlier this week, I traveled to Olympia to testify before the Washington State legislature on the recommendations of the Higher Education Funding Task Force, which I had the privilege to chair. The task force recommendations provide a systematic roadmap for stabilizing the health of our higher education sector and paving the way for more Washington students to earn four-year degrees.
As I talked with lawmakers, I was struck by several observations.
First, some proposals floating around Olympia would result in even deeper cuts to higher education, making a bad problem even worse. Higher education has undergone severe budget cuts over the past couple of budgets, and that is ground we will need to make up if we expect our public colleges and universities to serve more Washington students going forward.
Next, while I’m naturally a bit biased, the conversations reaffirmed for me the degree to which the Task Force members, who represented diverse interests from around the state, had managed to boil down a complex set of issues into a clearly defined problem, and had developed a logical strategy for addressing it. Higher education historically has been the gateway to jobs and opportunities for young people, and that is going to be even more the case in the future.
Individuals with four-year college degrees earn substantially more and are significantly less likely to become unemployed than those with only a high school education. With analysts predicting that three-quarters of all future family wage jobs in the state will require at least a bachelor’s degree, we need to help our public colleges and universities prepare Washington students for these opportunities. Otherwise, children from other regions and nations will enjoy the benefits of those opportunities, while our children are left with limited choices going forward.
We also should recognize that Washington’s economic health is increasingly tied to innovative, knowledge-based economic activity. These industries and employers depend heavily on our public colleges and universities – especially the research universities – both for the research that helps fuel innovation and for the employees they need to succeed. It’s not an overstatement to suggest that continued dilution of state support for higher education will put at risk our state’s economic future.
Finally, I was reminded that we should all be thankful that we have thoughtful individuals willing to serve as our elected officials. This service requires a serious commitment and often involves significant personal sacrifices by both the officeholders and their loved ones. All too often, what they get in return is criticism for their decisions. It was quite clear that our legislators are rolling up their sleeves, grappling with the substance of key issues, and working their way through some very difficult decisions, given the daunting challenges facing our state. Even though we don’t always agree with the direction they take or the decisions they make, we should stop and thank them for their work on our behalf.
There’s lots of cause for optimism that our elected leaders will seize the opportunity to strengthen higher education in Washington State, focusing in part on our task force’s recommendations. These types of steps would help place higher education on stronger footing going forward and would help ensure that more Washington students can earn the degrees that will open doors for the future.