Diverse WWU students are needed to grow our economy. But where will they live?

Sabah Randhawa has been president of Western Washington University since 2016. The university hopes to start construction of new student housing, funded through the sale of tax-exempt bonds, in spring 2020 for a fall 2021 opening.
Sabah Randhawa has been president of Western Washington University since 2016. The university hopes to start construction of new student housing, funded through the sale of tax-exempt bonds, in spring 2020 for a fall 2021 opening. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

It seems that no matter where I go, the topic of student enrollment and housing at Western Washington University comes up. And that’s understandable as housing and rental prices have been steadily increasing statewide. According to the city of Bellingham, over the past 15 years the median home value has increased 137 percent, while median rent has gone up 72 percent. And in 2015, the fraction of homes for rent that were unoccupied was a slim 1.82 percent in Bellingham. Nationally, that number was nearly six percent.

While it’s tempting to point to growing enrollment as a culprit in squeezing housing availability and escalating costs, the college-aged population (ages 20-24) in Bellingham has remained remarkably constant as a percentage of the overall population, at around 18 percent since 2010, according to U.S. Census data. Meanwhile, the 50 and over population has grown to nearly 30 percent.

Western’s Bellingham main campus enrollment exceeded 10,000 for the first time in 1970. So, over the past 47 years, we have added approximately 5,000 students. That period of steady growth has presented us with a double-edged sword. Over the last two decades, our colleges and work force have benefited from both growing population and an increase in the number of students graduating from high school. In fact, the nation’s high school graduation rate rose to a record high, with more than 84 percent of students graduating on time in 2016, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education. In Washington, 79.7 percent of high school students graduated on time in 2016.

Many of the new arrivals on college campuses are increasingly nonwhite, the first generation in their families to attend college, and lower income. And although students of color and low-income students are graduating from high school at higher rates, many of these students face significant barriers to college success, which translates into lost potential for our communities.

Nationwide, between 1970 and 2010, bachelor’s degree attainment rates for students from families with income in the top quartile nearly doubled, from 40 percent to about 78 percent. In contrast, degree attainment for students from the bottom family income quartile has remained essentially constant at about nine percent.

All of this comes at a time when our state economy is more dependent than ever on a work force that is college-educated. In the next decade, two-thirds of the jobs in Washington will require some form of post-secondary education, yet Washington currently ranks 48th in the nation in participation in four-year public undergraduate education. And, according to the Washington Roundtable, there will be 740,000 job openings in the next five years, yet only 31 percent of Washington high school seniors go on to earn a postsecondary credential today.

It is not only in our students’ interest, but that of our institutions and our local and state economies, to double down on our efforts to enroll and graduate students who have too often been overlooked in the past. This means creative partnerships with high schools and better pathways with community colleges. It means a shared commitment from federal and state policy makers, to ensure that students are college-ready when they graduate from high school, but also that they have the financial means to graduate from college in a timely manner. It means support both inside and outside the classroom, and yes, it means more and better housing for our students.

To that end, we are at work on a housing master plan that could include both renovations of existing residence halls and a new facility. Subject to permitting and zoning requirements, we hope that construction, funded through the sale of tax-exempt bonds, will begin in spring 2020 for a fall 2021 opening. And we look forward to more private investment in new, affordable housing for all community members.

We know that our most important challenge is to increase the number of workforce-ready graduates while eliminating achievement gaps for students from diverse backgrounds. We also recognize that improving the quality of students’ lives is essential to boosting their odds of success in school, and a big part of that work is contributing to a vibrant and stable community that helps people at all levels, whether they’re looking for an education, employment or simply a beautiful place to live. You have my commitment that WWU will continue to work both on campus and off to make this place we collectively call home the very best that it can be.

Dr. Sabah Randhawa began service as the 14th president of Western Washington University on Aug. 1, 2016.