Greater Business Influence On Higher Education Infrastructure

Better Including Business On Higher Education Capital Budget Requests
SB 5684 has now moved out of the Senate Higher Education and Senate Ways and Means Committees, and was sent to Rules at the end of last week. The measure would facilitate discussions between public higher ed and employers to determine which campus construction projects would best prepare for anticipated worker shortages. Photo: University of Washington

Recent legislation is gaining traction in the Washington state legislature which would join efforts from higher education institutions and state businesses together to decide where capital budget funding is best spent to meet projected workforce demands. SB 5684 would leverage state funding of proposed higher education projects towards accommodating employer needs in high-demand fields. Under the bill, proposals would receive a one-to-one match on public-private money. On Friday, February 24, the measure was voted out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and sent to Rules.

Earlier this month, the bill was heard in front of the Senate Higher Education Committee and was met with generally positive feedback. Construction sector stakeholders testifying in support of the bill said it will help create more jobs and bolster small college towns, as campus projects are likely the largest development for the surrounding community. Also in support were the state’s public higher ed institutions, who argued the program set up under the bill would help prepare students to succeed in critical job sectors.

Improving The Higher Education-Career Link

State Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1) is prime sponsor, and State Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-17) is cosponsor. He presented his bill to the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, February 23 saying, “We didn’t want to rob Peter to pay Paul. We don’t want to take say $100 million out of liberal arts to fund” Science, Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Palumbo added, “This is actually meant to be incremental spending…it’s a win for taxpayers, it’s a win for employers, and it’s a win for students who won’t be turned away from their dreams for their majors because we don’t have space.”

The bill would create the Higher Education Infrastructure Program, which would partner with employers from several sectors to determine which higher ed institution projects should receive capital funding. The programs board would include five members from businesses in sectors including aerospace, engineering, agriculture, and maritime.

The board must create a guideline for considering higher ed project proposals and rank plans higher if they involve a public and private partnership, and would encourage extra private funding. It would also work alongside higher education representatives to determine which projects would increase degree and certificate production and prepare students for entering the workforce.

Closing Gap Between Unfilled Job, Available Workers

Palumbo told the committee that employers “are importing bachelorette degrees from out of state, which doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. These are good paying jobs, these are $70,000 to start right out of university with stock and benefits. So we have great jobs for” students “in the industry, but we can’t get the workers.”

Palumbo added that two institutions in his district, Cascadia Community College and University of Washington (UW) Bothell, have to refuse students looking to major in computer science due to insufficient space.

He said, “There’s a lot we have to do from K-12 and preschool all the way through college to align” students “with the workforce demands that we have. This is one that we can fix; it’s just a capital bottleneck. But the problem (is)…there’s never enough money for capital so I…thought of this idea that maybe we should do a public-private partnership.”

Although no one signed in against the bill for both hearings of the bill, some held concerns that the money wouldn’t go far enough for some of the state’s public higher ed institutions, or might disrupt how the state’s Community and Technical Colleges (CTCs) receive capital funding.

Leveraging Private Funding To Unclog Project Bottleneck

For the state’s public four-year institutions, SB 5684 would be a welcomed addition, but also important to consider are the schools who struggle to receive private contributions.

Alicia Kinne-Clawson told the committee that “every single project in Eastern Washington’s 10 year capital plan is a STEM building. We have a massive bottleneck in that area…we don’t get a lot of external funding from private sources, and we like the opportunity to try and leverage that.” She is the assistant director of government relations at Eastern Washington University.

She added that “if we have one concern it’s about the match provision…matching funds from private sources just isn’t something Eastern has historically received.”

However, representatives from the state’s CTCs cited concern about how capital funding distributions under the bill might be skewed against those schools.

“Recognizing that buildings play a supporting role in education, the diversity and college programs, and existing facilities contribute to different capital needs at each college,” Wayne Doty said.  He is Capital Budget Director for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

“We appreciate the potential for more capital funding as proposed in the bill, but we are very concerned about the potential impact of the funding for our system’s diverse capital needs and ongoing” management and operations for those facilities, he added.

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