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Despite challenges, Washington’s universities are making progress

A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania criticizing Washington’s higher education system identifies some real problems but lands wide of the mark in offering solutions. The report leaves the impression that Washington’s higher education system is fundamentally broken. We do not believe it is.

Our state’s financial challenges have had a significant impact on higher education. However, despite these challenges, genuine progress has been made in key areas over the past several years. Specifically:

• Enrollment in our public baccalaureates has increased by 10,000 students since the start of the recession, with the largest growth being in critical workforce areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

Our public universities and college have the highest completion rates in the nation for public four-year institutions.

Recent legislation not only provided us with tuition-setting authority, but also allowed us to direct new financial aid to low- and middle-income families, improve the transfer process, and adopt the nationally recognized Complete to Compete performance and accountability framework.

Even after increases, tuition at many of our institutions remains below the average of our peers.

The state continues to maintain a strong commitment to “highest in the nation” need-based financial aid by protecting Washington’s State Need Grant Program.

By any measure, Washington is among the best – if not the best – in the nation in moving students through the higher education system in a cost-effective manner. This success has not happened by accident. It has required a decade of focus, coordination and a strong commitment to excellence.

Despite our progress, major challenges remain. Public funding for our sector has decreased by 50 percent over the past three years and is now equal to funding levels in 1989. While it is true that tuition has increased at a rapid rate, it is not because costs are increasing; it is because taxpayer support for higher education has rapidly decreased. It actually costs less to produce a four-year degree today than it did two decades ago. The difference is the state has shifted the cost to students and their families.

Additionally, while Washington proudly ranks fifth in community college participation, we rank 48th in the nation in four-year undergraduate participation, and 49th in graduate and professional participation. The study is correct that our state does not produce enough degrees to stay competitive, but that is not because our system is not performing.

The facts are clear: Our universities and college are the most efficient and productive in the nation at producing degrees. Once students get to one of our institutions, they succeed and complete. We have the capacity to serve. We need more students coming to our institutions from other sectors of education.

Last year, the Legislature, governor, business community and higher education leaders worked together and took steps to address these challenges. The Higher Education Opportunity Act granted tuition-setting authority to our institutions in exchange for new financial aid for students and increased accountability to the public.

Leading state companies such as Microsoft and Boeing lobbied for the creation of the Opportunity Scholarship program and then pledged $50 million in new scholarship funding for middle-income students. At the same time, the state maintained its commitment to affordability by increasing funding for the State Need Grant Program.

This year the Legislature is considering a series of regulatory reforms ranging from purchasing practices to reporting requirements that would streamline our operations and allow us to better focus resources on instruction.

Ultimately, the report points to the wrong solution, placing too much hope in a new higher education governance structure to cure all that ails the system. While some may look at Washington and think six distinctly different universities are “fragmented,” in Washington, our differences are our strengths—not a weakness.

Our complementary “federation” of institutions offers every type of student who wants a higher education a place to learn and thrive. Suggesting that more higher education bureaucracy is the answer to our problems is an outdated argument and won’t serve our students.

The success of our four-year higher education system in Washington has been no accident and has one common denominator over the years – public investment. We support the governor’s proposal to stop further reductions in public funding for our institutions. And we need to continue to look for new ways to remain one of the most effective and efficient systems in the nation.

This was co-authored by Michael K. Young, president of the University of Washington; Elson S. Floyd, president of Washington State University; Thomas L. (Les) Purce, president of The Evergreen State College; Rodolfo Arévalo, president of Eastern Washington University; James L. Gaudino, president of Central Washington University; and Bruce Shepard, president of Western Washington University.

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