Boosting Washington State Higher Education: The Conversation Deepens

Boosting Washington State Higher Education: The Conversation Deepens
Major public universities in Washington want more support from lawmakers, to boost degree completion in fields where state employers have the greatest needs. The conversation is deepening, as legislators join in. Photo: University of Washington

Representing the largest four-year public universities in Washington, the Council of Presidents on January 17 told the State Senate Higher Education Committee their institutions need additional funding to boost certificate and degree attainment, and student achievement. The push is timely, even if the outcome is far from assured. A recent report from the Washington Roundtable accents the state’s alarmingly low proportion of high schoolers who go on to earn postsecondary degrees.

Lawmakers agree higher ed needs a boost, but exactly how to do that is a work in progress. They say they would like to see:

  • operating budget incentives for state universities to improve their degree completion rates;
  • more dialed-in counseling of two- and four-year college students to help them navigate academic and fiscal challenges;
  • closer alignment between job skills programs at two-year colleges and the emerging needs of nearby employers;
  • greater emphasis in K-12 on core subject mastery and college readiness;
  • and better use of assessments in K-12, so students can make the right career path choices.

The council reported that Washington ranked 47th in the nation for college participation by age 19, at 36.7 percent. That compares to the national average of 46.8 percent. The state has faltered. Thirty years ago, Washington ranked 8th.

Preparing For Competitive Economy 

The council’s 2017 legislative agenda includes using targeted state investments to increase and accelerate degree completion geared to the increasingly competitive global economy. The council aims to grow the number of degrees granted by Washington public universities in high-demand fields, with a parallel focus on improved minority achievement.

Almost three-quarters of U.S. job growth in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields from 2014 to 2024 will be in computer science-related occupations, according to the council.

Computer Science Skills Gap

In its presentation to lawmakers, the council emphasized that, “The largest workforce gaps at the baccalaureate and graduate levels in Washington are in computer science, engineering, education, and the health occupations.”

The Washington Roundtable recently reported the state’s higher ed system needs to rise to a crucial challenge: filling 740,000 job openings by 2021. Many will require postsecondary credentials. Currently, less than one-third of Washington 9th-graders go on to get a certificate, or a two- or four-year degree within seven years after their high school class graduation date.

Incentivizing Operating Budget Requests

Assistant Ranking Minority Member of the House Higher Education Committee, Rep. Luanne Van Werven (R-42) said, “I would like to see less focus on enrollment and more on degree completion, that will set up our students for future success. I think we could look at incentivizing colleges to get their numbers up.”

She added that disposition of operating budget increase requests from Washington public universities could be linked to their graduation rates, and data on time to degree attainment.

Van Werven said it is critical for state public colleges and universities to prepare students for high demand jobs, and for academic advisors to closely monitor students from start to finish. As a start, three state universities have each received $750,000 from the legislature to beef up student success and advising programs.

She stressed the value of Washington’s career and technical colleges, which she said should play a more integral role in giving workers the emerging skill sets most needed at nearby employers.

Deciding what academic programs to emphasize needs to be done very carefully by higher ed decision-makers, according to Van Werven.

“We push all these resources into a certain area and pretty soon…there’s not enough jobs for the students…I want to be a little more deliberate about how we fund those positions. Right now, it’s STEM degrees…that’s very important in sectors like computer science, but we don’t want to glut the market. We have to be a little more nimble and be able to see beyond this current need, to what is next on the horizon,” said Van Werven.

Vice Chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, Sen. Barbara Bailey (R-10), said, “I think there’s some things we used to do in high school that we don’t do anymore…we used to provide testing to help students identify where their ‘hot buttons’ are, and help them get some kind of direction” prior to graduation.

Ranking Minority Member of the committee, Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1), said the state has a problem starting in preschool, that extends all the way through higher ed.

“The system is breaking down because we are not getting people into the fields they need, and the people we are sending into two- and four-year institutions aren’t ready. It’s abundantly clear that we have a serious workforce pipeline problem,” he added.

Better Counseling Needed

According to Palumbo, “What it comes down to is better counseling in the four- and two-year context, but it also goes along into K-12 as well. You need to have counselors that are guiding the pathway for these kids so they know where to get their degree.”

He and other lawmakers say career and technical education (CTE) programs starting in high school are invaluable. The 14 CTE regional skill centers statewide are helping to boost high school graduation rates, and are orienting participating students to career-focused part-time jobs, as they transition to certificate or degree programs at Washington two-year public colleges.

Math And Job Readiness

Paul Francis, Executive Director of the Council of Presidents, said at the Senate Higher Ed panel meeting, “I think we’ve really fallen down on our state. We hear what our businesses are saying constantly,” that a greater supply of skilled workers is vital.

Francis said, “Math tends to be a barrier for students…using data analytics, we can sit down with the student and say ‘maybe you don’t want to do computer science but here’s a related STEM field we think you would do really well in, before you completely disregard that particular area.'”

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