A proud moment for the state Legislature

July 9, 2013 

I am very proud of our state Legislature. As difficult and protracted as the process was, our legislators passed a state budget that reinvests in the state’s future by supporting the education of our young people. It’s an achievement that deserves to be recognized.

It is clear that the state of Washington owes much of its historical success to the education our people have made available to their fellow citizens. Our state colleges and universities have produced cultural innovators, highly skilled workers, and thoughtful, ethical leaders in government and business. Public investment in education has also enabled individuals of limited means to climb the socioeconomic ladder. Studies have shown that a person with a bachelor’s degree can expect $1 million more in lifetime earnings than a high school graduate. And even through the Great Recession, college graduates had an unemployment percentage that was half the general rate.

Even viewed purely from an economic standpoint, higher education has always been a tremendous investment for the state. Experts have determined that for every dollar the state invests in the University of Washington, the university generates $22 in economic activity and returns $1.48 back to the state in tax revenue. Likewise, the steadfast quality of the UW’s scholarship brings in $1.5 billion in research funding every year.

A generation ago, the public leveraged these widespread benefits by funding 80 percent of an undergraduate education for our state’s residents. But over the past five years a relentless withdrawal of state funding from Washington’s institutions of higher education has reversed this. Today, nearly 70 percent of funding for an undergraduate’s education comes from student tuition, straining family budgets and jeopardizing the public’s interest in a college-educated citizenry.

Given these alarming trends, I am proud that our elected leaders took the time to listen to our students, parents, educators, news editors, and labor and business leaders. They heard that the affordability and the quality of public higher education remain critically important to the future of Washington and its families. They even heard our students’ unprecedented offer to have their own tuition increased to retain the world-class faculty and staff of the University of Washington.

Our legislators acted. In the face of severe financial problems and stark political differences, our legislators forged a budget that holds tuition in check for resident undergraduates and re-invests state funding back into Washington’s colleges and universities. This is a major course correction in favor of the state’s long term wellbeing.

The state budget is an encouraging reminder that the trajectory of a public issue can be altered for the better and that downward spirals need not continue. Many individuals, including faculty and student leaders, labor leaders, business executives, and newspaper editors demonstrated the power of a thoughtful argument, persistently and eloquently presented, and the capacity of our citizens and our democratic institutions to respond constructively. The resulting political compromises and the long-term thinking of the legislators should be a source of pride for every Washington citizen. By their bold action, our legislators have taken an important step to reenergize our public colleges and universities and return momentum to Washington’s historic commitment to educating its citizens to meet the challenges of tomorrow.

Michael K. Young is president of the University of Washington.

This editorial was published in print on July 7, 2013.

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