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Saturday, June 6, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Time To Reassess State Of Colleges

It’s summer and in higher education circles that means it’s time for a break. Students are in summer jobs, sweating to pay skyrocketing tuition. Administrators are hoping the expected number of customers show up in the fall, and the most thoughtful ones are wondering if they’re still providing what customers want, or if it’s impure for an academician to care. Legislators, after a session that boosted capacity of public colleges, are home from Olympia, back in the real world. And faculty members are recharging their batteries.

It’s a good time, therefore, to reflect on a service crucial to Washington state’s future. Colleges, of course, provide the inventive human capital that makes our economy grow.

For more than a decade, state analysts have warned that Washington state lags the whole nation in access to a four-year university. In addition, they noted that demand for university admittance will soar due to the emergence of baby boomers’ kids, a demographic bulge, from high school.

In response, the Legislature has funded more capacity at the state’s universities and colleges. That has been a good investment in our future.

But a report this spring from the Washington Research Council raises startling questions. It indicates that the state’s yardsticks exaggerate the inadequacy of the higher education system. It raises questions about how many high school graduates actually will need, want or be able to afford a four-year degree. And, it points out that private colleges in Washington could improve education capacity at low cost to the taxpayers.

Right now, nearly all high school graduates who apply to attend college in Washington are getting in.

Between now and 2008, the number of high school graduates could rise from 53,000 to 73,000. Roughly half are likely to enroll in college. Of those who do, half will choose a community college and a quarter will choose an in-state, public four-year school. So how much more should the public system be expanded? The job looks doable.

The report questions the data, cited often in this space and elsewhere, that rank Washington last among the states in access to a four-year public university. It says those data fail to distinguish between full-time students and part-time students, who place a much smaller strain on the system’s capacity. Two fairer yardsticks - the number of baccalaureates awarded and the number of full-time-equivalent students per capita - show Washington ranks 33rd among the states.

In the future, where should higher education dollars go? For starters, they should follow student demand, which means that underenrolled universities like Eastern need to rethink services to match the market.

Also, legislators should consider the state’s private universities, which may have room for another 10,000 students. Their students don’t get the huge taxpayer subsidy provided at public colleges. The ability to attend private college hinges on financial aid, which the state does provide. In fact, students at private colleges come from much poorer households than students at the University of Washington.

With only a boost in its financial aid programs the state could help more residents toward a private-school degree at very low cost to the taxpayers.

The Research Council’s findings should rattle ivory towers all over the state. It’s time. Other institutions in society have had to reassess and reform. It’s time higher education did the same.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board

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