Washington’s public colleges fared well in the 2013 Legislature, in the sense that it feels good when someone stops beating you with a stick.
During the worst years of the economic downturn, lawmakers had repeatedly raided higher education budgets to fund other priorities. Last year, they did no further harm to the institutions. Students saw relief, too: They didn’t face what had become the customary big annual spike in tuition.
But public colleges are never quite safe when the Legislature is in session. Lest we forget, Washington’s economy remains connected by umbilical cord to its educational system. The Washington Student Achievement Council, which monitors educational levels in the state, released some key findings last fall:
• Washington employers give many of their highest-wage jobs to people from out of state, largely because native Washingtonians don’t have the needed educations.
Between 2009 and 2011, companies were importing more than 6,000 out-of-staters a year with four-year or graduate degrees. The need for computer science and engineering degrees is particularly acute.
• The Affordable Care Act will soon intensify the demand for health-care professionals as more Washingtonians gain medical insurance.
• As many as one in five employers appears to have difficulties finding qualified applicants – a bottleneck for economic growth.
• Roughly two-thirds of all jobs will require post-high school degrees, certificates or apprenticeships by 2020. Only half of the state’s adults have earned these credentials.
• The Legislature has been expanding financial aid in recent years – but not fast enough. Four years ago, 66,364 aspiring students got grants, while 1,880 eligible students were shut out for lack of funding. Now 77,800 get grants, but roughly 30,000 are shut out.
• The Legislature has been serious about expanding some STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – programs. But there’s a lot of catching up to do.
Community colleges haven’t been able to meet the intense demand for trained technicians and health-care workers. Employers are having a particularly hard time finding science-based degree employees.
The Legislature is rightfully moving to fully fund the K-12 system, as ordered by the state Supreme Court a year ago. But access to post-high school education – the gateway to middle-class jobs – is also critically important.
By constitutional mandate, lawmakers must offer all Washington students a high-quality basic education. But the economy demands more. Those students shouldn’t have to watch rivals from elsewhere land jobs that might have been theirs if the state had let them go as far as their dreams would take them.