Thayne McCulloh and Beck Taylor: Colleges need support building vital workforce
We applaud the Legislature’s action this session embracing the higher-education attainment goals proposed by the Washington State Student Achievement Council. We also wish to thank Gov. Jay Inslee for his signature on the bill.
These goals are a great first step toward equipping Washington’s higher-education system to find ways to produce many more graduates in the coming years – a necessity if Washington is to meet the demands of its economy and sustain its prosperity and quality of life. Meeting these challenges begins with a commitment by our state to making high-quality higher education accessible to all.
A recent study from Georgetown University predicts that by 2020 our state’s economy will produce approximately 1.2 million job openings, and 40 percent of those will be new jobs. This is good news, but the study warns that nearly 70 percent of these job openings will require at least some postsecondary education. This is an alarming statistic and a compelling call for action.
One way to increase degree production in our state is to call upon all higher education institutions to collaborate more while still maintaining their own unique missions. There is excellent potential for greater coordination, resource-sharing, and innovation by building on our current system.
Examples of progress made so far are Gonzaga University’s online nursing doctorate program, and Whitworth University’s degree-completion programs tailored for working adults.
We must also improve the ways in which we prepare students from our K-12 system to attend and graduate from college. If current trends hold, only 19 percent of Washington’s ninth-graders will receive an associate’s degree or higher. Examples of the good work to boost pursuit of higher education are Spokane Public Schools’ T-2-4 program and the state’s College Bound Scholarship that serves low-income students in the seventh and eighth grades. High school graduation rates for College Bound students are nearly 79 percent, compared to lower than 60 percent for other low-income students.
Washington must commit to a system that provides access to higher education for everyone who desires it. This is a long-term investment that must be maintained if it is to be meaningful. And to keep this promise requires a sustained level of funding that, at a minimum, returns to pre-recession levels. We are thankful that the governor and Legislature have found some additional funding in the recently adopted supplemental budget for helpful programs like College Bound, and initiatives in STEM degrees. But additional funds must be found to grow these programs along with our degree-production capacity.
Currently, more than 32,000 eligible students are not receiving the financial aid they need from the state to go to college. We must find consistent funding to open the door to a positive higher-education experience for these students. This need is even more critical when one considers that student aid is one of the ways of overcoming the huge inequity in educational achievement in this state linked to under-represented racial and ethnic populations.
The estimated price tag for serving these eligible students is about $140 million per year. This is a small price to pay for our state to create a higher-education system that is open to all.
Washington’s network of 10 independent colleges and universities, including Gonzaga and Whitworth, is committed to doing what we can to improve our higher-education system. Collectively, the Independent Colleges of Washington annually confer 20 percent of the college degrees in our state, while ICW students receive only 2 percent of the state’s allocation for financial aid. Despite this, the degree-completion rate for students from Washington’s independent colleges, as a sector, is second in the nation. But we can and must do more.
In this, our 60th anniversary year, ICW institutions have challenged ourselves to work with other higher-education institutions to create a broad-based and sustainable coalition committed to collaborative strategies for transforming the higher-education system in our state. If we’re successful, this coalition will have a profound impact on the future of our youth, our economy and our entire state. We look forward to working with anyone who will join us in this important endeavor.
Thayne M. McCulloh is an ICW board member and president of Gonzaga University. Beck A. Taylor is an ICW board member and president of Whitworth University.