Thanks to the Higher Education Funding Task Force, Washington state legislators have been provided with a lot of homework on how to sufficiently finance the state’s colleges and universities so they can remain competitive and serve the shifting needs of the state.
Gov. Chris Gregoire asked the 16-person panel, composed mostly of business leaders, to find alternative ways to finance higher education, which has gotten a steadily declining portion of the budget for many years. The recommendations are intriguing, innovative and controversial. And they ought to receive serious consideration by lawmakers.
First, the panel sets out ambitious goals to make sure the institutions keep pace with the changing economy and catch up to peer institutions when it comes to the quality and number of graduates that would be funneled into the state’s work force. The plan calls for a 27 percent increase in the number of students earning bachelor’s degrees by 2018. By 2020, the panel expects that two-thirds of new jobs in the state will require a college degree. At present, some companies have to look outside the state and the country to find qualified applicants.
Second, the panel recommends that the six public institutions be given more latitude for long-range planning. That’s difficult now, because schools don’t know from one year to the next what their state allocation will be. So schools would be given tuition-setting authority, with some state-imposed guidelines. In the lean years, schools could raise tuition more to offset the revenue shortfall. In flush years, tuition may not need to change. This would give institutions a predictable flow of money. Peer institutions in other states already have this authority.
Some lawmakers will balk, saying that elected officials need to be accountable for tuition levels. But the status quo has gotten us into the bind we face today. Lawmakers would still have some control over annual tuition changes, because those would be contingent upon how much money they give to institutions.
Third, higher tuitions would need to be offset by sufficient financial aid so that desirable students aren’t priced out of the market. For this, the panel recommends formation of an endowment that would be funded with private donations. The goal is $1 billion in the first 10 years. Businesses that contribute would be given tax credits as an incentive. Of course, lawmakers would have to recognize that this would siphon money that would otherwise go into the general fund.
A promising aspect of the plan is that it builds in some of the accountability measures that have been aimed at K-12 education. Schools would have to achieve certain outcomes, such as speeding up the time it takes for students to attain degrees and producing more graduates in science, technology, engineering and math.
It’s clear that legislators won’t be able to open the purse strings enough to improve the state’s higher education outlook. So they need to open their minds to alternative solutions.