In Our View: New Direction in Higher Ed

Legislature replaces HECBwith Student Achievement Council

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If changing the name of the state Higher Education Coordinating Board becomes simply kneading the nomenclature, then this year’s House Bill 2483 will be seen as a waste of time. After all, the new Student Achievement Council starts off with the same staff as the old HECB.But there are several indications that the change is carefully designed, with a clear mission, plus a closer connection between higher education and the K-12 system. Previously, those two operations were conducted in figurative silos. Now, with a representative of the state superintendent’s office (for K-12 education) serving on the new nine-member board, the silos are replaced by shared goals.

The HECB — often referred to as the “Heck Board” — had developed a reputation for listlessness and lack of innovation. The new Student Achievement Council operates under firm orders: Increase the number of people in the state who have college degrees. Set clear goals and present them to the governor and Legislature; recommend the resources that are needed and track progress toward those goals, propose improvements and innovations for higher education, and advocate, i.e., evangelize, the doctrine of economic, social and civic benefits of postsecondary education.

That distinct direction led the bill to unanimous approval in the Senate and 72-26 approval in the House. Among Southwest Washington lawmakers, Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, was the lone opponent.

Whether HECB Executive Director Don Bennett and the hold-over staff are kept on will be decided by the new council. Already it’s known that the staff will be trimmed slightly, saving about $250,000.

Here in Clark County, a stronger, more effective higher-education board could make a significant impact. Washington State University Vancouver has seen tremendous growth in the past decade. Its role as contributor to economic development and high-tech jobs creation is momentous. Branch universities are becoming more popular. Main campuses still produce most of the degrees, but the percentage increase of degrees at branch universities is much greater, soaring 121 percent in the past decade.

As for the new council’s top priority of increasing college degrees overall, there is the positive news that Washington is among the top states in creating jobs that require college degrees through 2018.

But there is room for improvement. About 690,000 people in the state have some college credits but no degrees, indicating a large group upon which the Student Achievement Council must focus. Another targeted group includes high school graduates who don’t advance to higher levels. Among 63,386 graduates of high schools statewide in 2009, about 36 percent did not enroll in college within one year.

Another key area of interest for the Student Achievement Council will be in the area of finances. A tipping point was reached in our state during the 2009-11 biennium. Prior to that, the state paid for the majority of per-student funding in higher education. After that, students themselves have paid a majority of that cost.

Another statistic of interest: Our state’s production of high-demand degrees in fields such as health sciences, computer science and engineering has increased 42 percent in the past decade.

All of these positive developments and lingering challenges mean the Student Achievement Council could become a properly designed replacement for the stagnant HECB. The Legislature and future governors must pay close attention to make sure this change becomes more than just cosmetic.