In Our View: Higher Ed Key for Economy

State needs to improve support for schools, their vital role in future growth

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Not only is higher education one of the most important engines driving Washington's current economy, it also is the most important linchpin to a prosperous future for the state. Because of that, a recent report provides what could be a crucial road map to help the region navigate whatever lies ahead.

The Washington Futures Committee, a group of business and civic leaders headed by Bill Gates Sr., has compiled recommendations to help the University of Washington maintain and grow in its role as a vital force throughout the state. And while the self-appointed task force focused on UW, its advice could be wisely heeded by all institutions of higher learning. Among the primary points, the committee urged the University of Washington to:

• Take in more in-state students.

• Keep tuition affordable.

• Increase the numbers of degrees earned in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

While having an influence that often is viewed as Seattle-centric, the University of Washington's reach extends throughout the state. It is a $9.1 billion-a-year economic engine, is the state's fifth-largest employer according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, and provides one-third of all college degrees earned in the state. Washington State University, while not being quite as big as UW, likely has a larger — and growing — influence on Clark County by virtue of the Washington State University Vancouver campus, which this fall welcomed about 3,000 students for the start of the school year.

The importance of higher education to the well-being of a state cannot be overstated, a fact that the Legislature paid homage to this year. After years of drastic budget cuts during The Great Recession, lawmakers passed a budget for the 2013-15 biennium that restored some funding to higher education and, more important, dictated a one-year tuition freeze for state schools. Still, higher education is reeling from the dire financial reality of the past several years: In 2009, the University of Washington received $402 million in state appropriations; last year, it received $209 million. That 2012 level was about the same amount UW received 20 years prior, even though the state's budget has nearly tripled during that time.

Returning support to previous levels will be a difficult task for lawmakers. They still must greatly increase funding for K-12 education, as mandated by the state Supreme Court, and money is limited. But higher education must continue to remain a priority.

As the report from the Washington Futures Committee states: "Reinvesting in higher education is the most powerful way to fuel our state's economy and continue drawing the best and brightest people to our state." That will be particularly crucial in coming years; research has indicated that job openings in Washington are growing faster than the number of qualified workers to fill them. For Washington to remain fertile ground for technology companies, those companies must have a qualified workforce at their disposal. Supply needs to keep up with demand.

Last year, UW was ranked by U.S. News and World Report as the 59th-best university in the world. This week, WSU received a grant from the Federal Aviation Administration to lead, along with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a research center on biojet fuel and other aviation topics. Good things are happening at Washington's most visible universities, and those things can pay dividends for generations to come for all the state's residents.