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Higher ed ‘famine’

A famous tale of the abundance-scarcity cycle appears in the Old Testament. Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, gains renown in captivity by interpreting dreams. When the Pharaoh dreams of seven lean cows devouring seven fat ones, Joseph explains that following seven years of abundance, Egypt will face seven years of famine. Grain is stored, and when the famine arrives all is well.

In higher education institutions, the abundance years are peaking. Time magazine recently reported that the high school class of 2008 – nearly 3.4 million students – is the largest in U.S. history, and most colleges boast waiting lists.

But lean years loom. Demographic trends indicate the number of college age students will decline over the next several years. And college is expected to become prohibitively expensive for some populations, including the children of immigrants.

Washington State University and Eastern Washington University are planning for the leaner future, because state budget shortfalls could be as high as $2 billion in the 2009-2011 cycle. Many unfilled positions will remain dark, for instance, and both universities are evaluating which programs will continue to serve students, and society, into the future. For instance, WSU is considering closing its undergraduate forestry program because of low demand.

By responding now to the immediate state budget worry, WSU and EWU are trying to be good stewards of public money. But they also will be better situated to ride out years of lower enrollments.

In Idaho, legislators and educators are planning for the coming demand for professional technical professions, such as health care aides and computer technicians. To reach more students, some rural schools are consolidating classes in the trades.

Professional technical education is “on the radar screen in Idaho,” said Sue Thilo, of Idaho’s State Board of Education. “We’ve just added a third community college, College of Western Idaho, and funding has been improved for professional technical education. Industry is demanding it, and educators are recommending it.”

In these abundance years, Inland Northwest higher ed institutions, public and private, should be asking the tough questions. What are the real needs of our students? What are the jobs of the future? How will our institutions respond to the demand for highly educated workers, such as physicians and nurses? And how can some institutions retool to train students who won’t need four-year degrees?

If Inland Northwest colleges and universities ask these questions now, and brainstorm workable solutions, all should be well when the “famine” years in higher education cycle this way again.


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