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Higher ed lays golden eggs; don’t strangle it

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Jan. 29, 2011 at 5:35 pm with No Comments »
January 28, 2011 5:38 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

A recent story in The Seattle Times vividly illustrated the tight connection between college opportunity and the state economy.

The engineering site director for Google in the Seattle region, Brian Bershad, told the Times that he can’t get enough computer-science engineers from the University of Washington. “If the UW could produce 1,000 amazing engineers every year,” he said, “we’d find a way to hire them.”

Often companies can’t achieve their growth potential for lack of qualified job applicants. Google is in a position to recruit from throughout the world, so it will fare better than most.

But that outside recruiting illustrates the flip side of the problem. When Google’s Washington operation hires software engineers from Ohio or Massachusetts or New Delhi, it is passing up bright young Washingtonians who might have landed those professional jobs with the right education.

Too often, those Washingtonians couldn’t get the right education because there weren’t seats for them at an affordable state university. Too often, the seats weren’t there because the Legislature has cut its support for four-year schools by nearly a third since 2000.

Cuts that sharp have dire consequences, both for the Washingtonians edged out of career opportunities and the smaller companies – including promising startups – that can’t find enough talent.

Given the current fiscal crisis, the 2011 Legislature will be doing more cutting of higher education before it adjourns this spring. While that may be unavoidable, it will perpetuate a terrible trend.

When a state starts to strangle its universities, bad consequences follow.

Students with limited means get frozen out of school. Bright students go to school elsewhere, and they often never come back to enrich the economy back home.

Competing out-of-state universities start spiriting away the most talented faculty members, sometimes pulling big grants and private R&D money along with them. High-tech companies that want a university nearby decide to locate elsewhere.

These are among the reasons the cash-strapped Legislature must give Washington’s universities more leeway – within limits – to set their own tuition rates. Students from affluent families ought to pay more; students of modest or low income ought to get more help.

The governor’s task force on funding higher education – which recommended more tuition-setting authority for universities – has turned up some telling statistics.

• Washington ranks 31st in America in producing four-year degrees. It ranks almost last in the rate of enrollment in four-year schools.
• By 2018, two-thirds of all jobs in Washington are expected to require at least some higher education. Given current trends, state schools will graduate 8,000 fewer students than Washington industries need.
• Current jobless rates and incomes track education levels with eerie precision. Workers with four-year degrees earn more than half again as much as workers with no post-secondary education.

The Legislature this year doesn’t have the money to preserve college opportunity in Washington. It should at least get out of the way and let the universities do it themselves.

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