A new direction for higher education

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By Rep. Larry Seaquist (D-Gig Harbor) and Rep. Larry Haler (R-Richland)

Right now, leadership and budget writers from all four caucuses and the governor’s office are negotiating a final supplemental operating budget. Unfortunately, disagreements over the best ways to fund basic education and the state’s pension system have forced us into overtime.

While the differences are being sorted out, we want to highlight one of several areas where Democrats and Republicans came together in agreement: higher education.

As our party’s leaders for higher education issues in the House of Representatives, we recognize a strong, accessible, and efficient college and university system is the engine that will get our economy moving again.

We are a high-tech state that needs high-tech workers. While our unemployment rate remains above 8 percent, our problem isn’t that businesses aren’t hiring. Our problem is that there’s not enough skilled labor to meet the demand by employers. Our businesses are hungry for high-tech talent that we aren’t producing at our post-secondary schools.

This session, the legislature took historic steps to fix that problem and steer the state in a new direction. With a bipartisan approach from the very beginning, our group worked with all stakeholders to shape this new direction. We gathered input from college and university leaders, faculty, and students.

The Legislature passed measures to boost training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). We created a “Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation” that will get more students into the aerospace industry with the right training and skills. A “Student Achievement Council” was also created. It will be responsible for coordinating our post-secondary education systems and establishing a new roadmap for our colleges and universities.

Our higher education system has suffered over the last several years. Tuition is up. Financial aid is down. Entire courses and departments have been eliminated. But thankfully, the bleeding has stopped. We’re hopeful a “no cuts to higher education” budget will emerge from the negotiating table.

So what’s next? Over the next few years, our focus will be on three primary areas. First, we have to produce more degrees in this state. Washington leads the nation when it comes to granting degrees for students that attend college, but where we struggle is in the number of degrees compared to the overall state population.

Our system’s inability to meet the demand is driving too many of our residents to seek educational opportunities in other states. By making it easier to go to college in-state, there’s a greater chance our graduates will remain here. Their talents and earning power would then be contributing to Washington’s economy.

Second, we need to continue looking under every rock to find ways to become more efficient. Our schools have done a tremendous job finding ways to become leaner. The legislature has taken steps as well to help our schools operate more efficiently. But there’s always room for improvement. Greater efficiency leads to lower operating costs and ultimately results in serving more students.

And finally, we need to embrace new approaches to delivering classes outside of the traditional classroom. The internet has been widely available for over two decades, yet online learning is still a relatively new concept. Washington needs to be a leader on this front.

As budget talks continue, we cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining support for our higher education system. Our state also needs to stay focused as we turn the corner into a steadily-improving economy. Staying ahead of the curve requires a strong commitment to ensuring our public higher education system is the best in the country.

Rep. Larry Seaquist (D-Gig Harbor) is the chair of the House Higher Education Committee.

Rep. Larry Haler (R-Richland) is the Ranking Republican on the House Higher Education Committee.

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