Opinion: Higher education must be a state budget priority; it’s key to the recovery and expanding economic opportunity.

Last month we wrote of an important report detailing how the pandemic was exacerbating existing inequities in education and steps schools were taking to address the new challenges. That report, Path to 70% Credential Attainment: Recovery & Reimagining, should help lawmakers make higher education a top priority in this session’s budget deliberations.

Also driving home the argument are recent opinion pieces in three newspapers around the state.

The Everett Herald editorial board tells of two promising young students pursuing college degrees, emphasizing the importance of state support.

Both said they’ve been fortunate to benefit from state and federal grants and scholarships, aid that is scheduled to expand for students with the 2021-22 school year and beyond under the Washington College Promise program, which is expected to serve some 90,000 students in the state with free or partial coverage of tuition and fees, based on income, under the College and Workforce Development Act passed by the Legislature in 2019. The act was a significant commitment by the Legislature and required an increase in the state’s business and occupation tax, with an eye toward developing the educated workforce the state’s industries and other employers depend upon.

At the time of its passage, Forbes magazine called the act “one of the smartest financial aid packages in the country” because it was structured so the financial responsibility would partly fall on businesses benefiting from an educated workforce.

The editorial also points out that state higher ed institutions have nearly

recovered from the cutbacks made during the Great Recession.

“The Great Recession was a devastating time for higher education,” said Dr. Paul Pitre, chancellor of Washington State University-Everett. State budget cuts forced by declining revenues meant state colleges and universities saw 40 percent to 50 percent cuts to their state allocations, which meant that those institutions had little choice but to impose double-digit tuition increases for several years.

Like the additional financial aid for students, higher education has slowly seen better financial support. While higher education is still having to do more with less, Pitre said, that support has allowed colleges and universities to maintain quality, keep tuition affordable, expand enrollment and increase diversity. As of 2020, he said, system-wide support has returned to near where it was before 2008.

But the pandemic has higher ed looking over its shoulder.

“The real fear with the pandemic is we might fall back into that cavern,” Pitre said.

The Tri-City Herald editorial board succinctly makes the key point.

it’s a safe bet that the harm caused by the pandemic will ripple for years to come.

That’s why it is so important for Washington state lawmakers to think longer term and protect the budgets of our colleges, technical schools and four-year universities.

In order to recover from this traumatic time, we need an educated society. If we want to strengthen our economy, we need a workforce that has the credentials for careers in the future.

If we want to close the gap between the poor and the rich, restricting higher education opportunities is the worst mistake public officials could make.

In the Kitsap Sun, an op-ed by Joe Morrison, Executive Director, Kitsap Economic Development Alliance, and Robert Squires, Vice Provost of Outreach and Continuing Education at Western Washington University, also point out the important role higher education plays in reducing income inequality and driving the economic recovery.

We urge state legislators to protect the progress we have made. In 2019, the Washington State Legislature took historic steps to support our state’s students and families by passing the Workforce Education Investment Act (HB 2158), which includes the Washington College Grant. The grant is now available to cover some or all of the costs of a credential for any student from a family of four making $97,000 a year or less. Because it is a grant, it does not need to be repaid, meaning it makes the difference for thousands of students being able to attend education or training after high school…

Many students on our campuses also rely on academic advising, food and housing assistance, behavioral health care, and tutoring as they work to complete their credential. Investments in services like these break down barriers for students to succeed on their education-to-career pathway, particularly students from low-income backgrounds, students of color, and students who are the first in their family to attend education after high school.   

They conclude,

Our communities and state are navigating new terrain as we seek to recover from the pandemic. The dreams of diverse students persist, as does our economy’s need for workers who have the skills and post-high school credentials to fill the jobs our businesses are creating. During the 2021 legislative session, let’s protect funding for higher education and support students today so Washingtonians can earn credentials for a successful tomorrow.   

Makes sense to us.