Opinion

WWU and other state colleges, universities economically create skilled workforces

As Western Washington University moves forward into its second century as one of the nation’s premier publicly purposed institutions, it is fitting to reflect on this place where “Active Minds Changing Lives” is lived out each and every day.

What makes Western unique is our focus on three core qualities values that we believe put us – and our peer institutions across the country – in a superb position to meet the key needs of our state:

High quality: Western’s student-centered focus emphasizes learning and teaching as a core institutional belief. Our students are taught and mentored by a faculty of outstanding scholars and have access to a full range of educational opportunities in smaller class sizes that enhance their educational experience.

Accessibility: Western provides a viable higher education choice for a diverse cross-section of Washington’s residents. This includes serving nontraditional students or groups that are underrepresented in our communities. This accessibility allows us to boost campus diversity, build inclusiveness and better enable our public/private partnerships to succeed.

Responsibility: Western and our peer institutions create the skilled workforces that support the business needs of our states while advancing community development and economic progress. At a time when many states ponder further cuts to higher education, it cannot be stressed enough that the economic future of each state is heavily dependent on the graduates who will come from our institutions; digging ourselves out of the post-recession economic hole is made by possible with the help of our graduates, not in spite of them. And as places of public purpose, we prepare students to enhance the quality of life in our communities through their leadership and service, increasing their opportunities to attain financial security and life fulfillment while reducing the likelihood of burdensome student debt.

Western’s mission places us in a category commonly known as a state college and university. Because of the size and scale of flagship institutions and the widespread presence of two-year institutions, state colleges and universities are often overlooked and under-appreciated.

Despite this comparative lack of visibility in the national higher education landscape, state colleges and universities fulfill a critical role in serving a remarkable 40 percent of all undergraduate students in the United States, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds. These institutions are at the same time serving as the most cost-effective and productive sector in American higher education.

In addition to the vital educational roles state colleges and universities play, not to be forgotten is the fact that they are so often the economic drivers for the communities they call home. WWU, for example, has an overall economic impact of approximately $300 million in our state annually. In Whatcom County alone, Western spent more than $11 million in purchasing and contracts in 2013.

This past year, five institutions — the University of Central Oklahoma, Northern Kentucky University, Henderson State University, Morgan State University and Western Washington University — have been working on a pilot project, Opportunities For All. Our task: to understand our collective ideals, to determine what common threads unite us and to explore our institutions’ invaluable roles in the educational, social and economic futures of our states. And just as importantly, we ask whether the threads that bind us as institutions are clear and visible for all to see, and if our mission as self-evident as we think it is.

Thankfully, there is strength in numbers in this regard — and there has never been a more important time for our voices to be heard as we, together, move forward to meet these challenges (and the opportunities they present) as a group.

One thing is certain, the pride we at Western feel as we pursue the goals embodied by our promise of “Active Minds Changing Lives” is a palpable force that continues to generate momentum for the university. And as we move forward, we will continue to make sure our stakeholders and the state’s general populace know the value not just of Western, but of the unique niche that state colleges and universities fill in each and every state, and for our nation.

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