The evidence is overwhelming: higher education is the single most reliable path to economic success for individuals, as well as to the prosperity of communities and of our state.
As the leaders of Washington’s six public universities, it would be reasonable to think we are biased in this regard. Yet the benefits of the “college dividend” are clear and undisputed. College graduates earn an additional $500,000 to $1 million — or more — in their lifetime over those who only graduate from high school, and they are more likely to be engaged in their communities and to pass on prosperity to the next generation. And yet each year, we find ourselves with less core educational funding to serve our students.
Just as the benefits of higher education to individuals are clear, so are the needs of our state’s economy. The Washington Roundtable reports that employers expect more than 740,000 job openings in Washington within the next five years — and that 74 percent of openings will be filled by workers with education beyond high school, 63 percent by those with a bachelor’s degree and the remainder by those who have earned degrees, credentials or advanced skills through our community and technical colleges.
Washington is creating good jobs, but many of those positions are being filled by people from out of state, in part because only 40 percent of high school students continue their education and attain a post-secondary credential by the age of 26. Indeed, our state ranks 42nd in the nation for degree attainment, putting our students, businesses and communities at risk of falling behind.
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At the same time, too many low-income students face barriers that their wealthier peers do not. These barriers have the greatest impact on some of our state’s fastest growing communities, and without access to higher education, more and more people will be shut out of Washington’s economy. The cost of that exclusion will be paid by everyone in our state.
It’s clear that the future of our state depends on students being able to successfully continue their education beyond high school. That starts with affordability, and fortunately our state’s public universities remain a great and affordable investment.
Again, the facts show this: Washington is among the 10 states with the lowest average per-student loan debt and almost half of undergraduates who graduated in 2017 had no student debt. Among those who did borrow, their average debt upon graduation was $23,936, compared with a national average of $31,100. These amounts are not insignificant, yet they are dwarfed by the outstanding return graduates have in increased earnings over their careers.
Still, more needs to be done if we are going to ensure that the benefits of higher education are broadly shared by families and communities across our state. Last year, the Legislature approved additional funding for the State Need Grant, which helps students from low-income families afford college, in addition to the scholarships and financial aid colleges and universities provide. This is an outstanding first step, and one that can be further advanced by legislators making good on their commitment to fully fund the State Need Grant so that every student who qualifies for a grant receives one.
However access is only worthwhile if students are successful, which is why our state must also commit to ensuring the quality of our state’s colleges and universities. We must ensure they remain places where Washington residents can get an extraordinary education, preparing them for a lifetime of success.
The quality of the education students receive depends on our universities’ ability to invest in them. At the same time, businesses are demanding more graduates in fields like STEM, and meeting those needs – as well as providing a strong foundation in critical thinking and other essential skills – will also require investment. The state’s higher education budget remains at pre-recession levels of a decade ago. It’s time for a significant infusion of core funding back into public higher education in the name of student success – to ensure an excellent education for all students and to keep higher education available and affordable for all.
Our universities are committed to the promise of higher education because we know how vital it is to improving the lives of our students and the health and prosperity of our state. Together, we can ensure that higher education is affordable and achievable for every student, and that the benefits of their education are spread to families and communities across Washington.