3-part strategy will mean more college graduates in state

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Southwest Washington has much to gain from new efforts in Olympia to enable more kids to graduate from college. Lawmakers are being asked to avoid making additional budget cuts in higher education, increase the state’s investment, and adopt other recommendations that would ensure affordability for students and accountability for taxpayers.

The recommendations come from a task force of business and civic leaders appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire to develop a long-range funding plan and increase the number of students graduating from Washington’s six public colleges and universities by 6,000 annually.

We can only achieve this by adopting an integrated three-part strategy that includes increasing state funding, giving Washington State University and other schools authority to set their own tuition, and creating a new, private source for student financial aid, so our children have the opportunity to attend college regardless of their economic background.

Washington, home to some of the most innovative companies in the world, leads the nation in hiring college graduates. But we lag behind 35 states for graduating our own students with bachelor’s degrees. That means most of the highly skilled residents here moved from somewhere else. And our kids are missing out on good-paying jobs.

This is particularly true in life sciences, one of the fastest-growing industries in the state. More than 200 companies make and distribute medical devices that are sold worldwide, while 175 others are involved with the production of bio-pharmaceuticals, using cutting-edge processes from biotechnology. Thirteen are in Southwest Washington, mostly in Vancouver.

These companies pay salaries that, on average, are twice that of other private-sector jobs. But they have had to import workers from out of state — or out of the country — to fill positions because they can’t find enough qualified workers in Washington.

To adapt to the needs of an increasingly skills-based economy, the state’s public colleges and universities need more stable funding. In two years, the Washington State University Vancouver campus has lost more than 22 percent of its state support, even as student enrollment continues to rise, reaching a record 3,100 last fall.

Recommendations

To prepare for continued growth, the task force recommends:

Giving public universities power to set tuition rates, with a caveat. Independent authority for tuition would be linked to state support and capped so as not to exceed the tuition rates of school peers in other parts of the country. If state support drops, however, WSU and other universities could raise tuition to cover the loss in funding. If state support rises, tuition increases would be limited.

Linking tuition and state funding will help universities reach their goal for increasing state support. It would also put a check on lawmakers, who hold the purse strings to state funding.

Creating an independent endowment fund to help more low- and middle-income students attend college. The goal is to raise $1 billion for scholarships, with incentives for businesses that donate. The intent is not to replace state-funded financial aid but to generate new revenue so college remains within reach of middle-class families.

Adding benchmarks for accountability, including enabling students to transfer credits for college-level courses in high school and community colleges, so they can graduate more quickly. The public has a right to expect tax dollars to be spent efficiently, and the accountability recommendations would ensure this.

This call to action is critical to the future prosperity of the state, and its citizens. Students at WSU Vancouver know what they need. In the fall of 2005, there were 55 undergraduate and graduate students pursuing science degrees. In the fall of 2009, there were more than 200.

Fifteen years after WSU Vancouver opened its doors, student demand still outpaces available seats in the classroom.

In an increasingly competitive world, we hope the governor and lawmakers take the necessary steps to move Washington forward. We must invest in what has made our state great — our ingenuity and our people.

Chris Rivera of Maple Valley is president of the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association and a member of the Higher Education Funding Task Force, which recently made recommendations to Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature.