In Our View: Mixed News in Higher Ed

New Student Achievement Council strives to maximize the many positives



Brian Baird was back in Vancouver on Monday and — as during his six terms in Congress concluding in 2010 — found himself in the middle of a tug of war. This time, though, the opposing forces were neither political nor partisan. They were simply the power of education pulling against the crippling force of academic under-achievement.

We wish the former congressman well in his new role as chair of the Washington Student Achievement Council, created by the Legislature to replace the old, bureaucratically entrenched Higher Education Coordinating Board. We also wish him patience and strong resolve as he struggles in this tug of war and tries to answer his own question: “What can we do to maximize student achievement?”

Answers are easy. Funding and implementation … not so much. But Baird appeared confident about the board’s potential when he returned to Vancouver for a public forum on Monday. He’s acutely aware of the current status of higher education in our state: caught between stark, polarizing forces. Bluntly stated, there’s a lot of positives and a lot of negatives in Washington’s higher education system.

Sorting through the differences is the challenge as the carefully named Student Achievement Council moves toward a dynamic and innovative, “10-Year Roadmap.” Here are a few examples of the dichotomy that defines higher education in Washington:

Pulling toward the positive is the fact that student enrollment in higher education is up 23 percent since 2000. To the negative, though, tuition has soared 151 percent in the same period.

Washington is fairly efficient at producing degrees within four years, currently ranked No. 1 among states. But state appropriations to higher education have dropped 28 percent since 2000, and per-student state funding is down 42 percent.

Here in Southwest Washington, access to higher education has greatly increased with the growth of Washington State University Vancouver and the modest influx of high-tech jobs. But the workforce is struggling to keep pace; 63 percent of Southwest Washington residents age 17-44 do not have a post-high-school degree.

Online learning is flourishing, with the Western Governors University showing a 318 percent increase in enrollment since 2011, from 895 students to 3,750. But three-fifths of high school graduates need remedial coursework at community colleges and technical colleges.

Financial assistance resources have increased in recent years, but since 2000 the percentage of median income that a family of four spends on tuition and fees at higher education institutions has more than doubled from 5 percent to 11 percent.

On a related note, a crucial deadline for financial assistance will arrive at 5 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 18. That’s the deadline for applying for the state’s Opportunity Scholarships, which were created by the Legislature through a bill sponsored by then-state Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver. About 3,000 students have received financial assistance totaling more than $50 million. The scholarships have been increased from $1,000 to $5,000 per year in junior and senior years. In its inaugural round last spring, about 80 WSUV students were awarded Opportunity Scholarships. Online application can be made at Washington State Opportunity Scholarship.

Good luck to scholarship applicants. And best wishes to Baird and the Student Achievement Council in its drive to maximize the positives of higher education in Washington.