Higher education a smart investment in state’s future

After a two-week break to refresh and hear from constituents, state lawmakers will return to the Capitol Campus on Monday to finish the work they couldn’t accomplish in 105 days: passing a budget. We hope legislators used this time to step back from party politics and return next week with a single-minded focus to do what is best for all people in the state of Washington.

If you say it quickly, it sounds like easy work to agree on a state budget. But it’s not, because how we spend our money represents our values and our vision for moving the state toward sustainable prosperity in a competitive global economy.

For that reason, we hope lawmakers will consider the remarks made by University of Washington President Michael Young at the Thurston County Chamber luncheon Wednesday. Young, who met earlier with The Olympian’s editorial board, laid out a convincing argument for increasing, not decreasing, the state’s investment in affordable higher education.

During a recent tour of countries in Asia, the UW president said he saw an urgency building in Korea, Japan and Taiwan to invest heavily in their higher education systems. Those countries see education and university-based research as the keys to America’s innovative and entrepreneurial advantages. In the long run, it’s the only model that works.

Higher education will grow their middle class and move their economies beyond the suppliers of cheap labor and resources, which they recognize will eventually lead to a dead end.

It is upsetting, conincidental and perhaps threatening, that Asia’s support for higher education comes as the United States is pulling back support for colleges and universities. Higher education institutions such as the UW and The Evergreen State College have lost nearly half of their overall state funding since 2009.

With less state revenue and a long list of pressing demands, state lawmakers have a difficult task in determining spending priorities. But short-changing higher education seems particularly short sighted.

For every dollar the state invests in UW, the university generates $22 in economic activity — twice the national average — and returns $1.48 back to the state in tax revenue. We challenge lawmakers to find a better return on investment.

Calling UW “a research colossus,” Young said the school receives $1.5 billion annually in research funding, more than Stanford or MIT, making it the top public university in the nation. Only Johns Hopkins University receives more research and development funds. And UW’s capacity to get research funding is limited only by state funds to expand its laboratory space.

Sensitive to the idea that a cure for cancer is no good “if it stays in the test tube,” Young says UW is focused on commercializing its research, and has already spun out more than 270 new companies, which are creating jobs and generating state revenues. The university is stepping up that effort with new incubator space and shared facilities for public-private entrepreneurial teams.

Young acknowledged Thurston County’s small-business incubator program, “So I’m sure you understand the benefits that come from having smart, talented people clustered together and sharing resources.”

We hope state lawmakers understand, too, and see the need to support Gov. Jay Inslee’s higher education funding proposal, which is the high-water mark for both state funding and modest tuition support.

To retain our position as the world’s leader in innovation and science we must not let our investment in higher education stagnate. Investing in Washington’s higher education system today makes sense if we value sustained prosperity for all.