States try to boost postsecondary education with free tuition, scholarships; Washington employers rely on trained workforce

Earlier we reported on research identifying an unprecedented number of job openings in our state over the next five years. And the study also identified that too few Washington students lacked the postsecondary training and education necessary to fill most of those jobs.

The Washington economy will provide 740,000 job openings in the next five years, according to a study released today by the Washington Roundtable and the Boston Consulting Group (full reportfact sheetvideomore). But for students in Washington classrooms today to claim those jobs, the study concludes, they will need to earn a postsecondary credential.

Currently, fewer than one-third of Washington students go on to complete a training program or college after high school. That number must double if our students are going to be prepared for the best jobs.

In a Stateline article today, Sophie Quinton writes that many states are also attempting to increase postsecondary enrollments by reducing the cost to students.

States that have created scholarships to make community college tuition-free are starting to see the impact on college enrollment…

Some 150 communities have established free college programs, according to the College Promise Campaign, a nonpartisan effort launched by Obama last year.

There are obvious fiscal challenges to implementing the strategy.

Communities have grappled with how to fund these programs. The Tennessee and Minnesota programs operate as “last dollar” scholarships, with the state stepping in to pay any tuition that’s not already covered by state and federal grants. Oregon’s program operates the same way, but adds a minimum $1,000 grant for each student. 

She reports that it will take some time to identify the costs to taxpayers. Other considerations include whether the programs divert students from four-year programs to start at “free” community college and whether the programs are benefitting low- or middle-income students.  Washington policymakers stand to learn from their experiences.

Last April, the National Conference on State Legislatures reported on states that were considering or had implemented some form of tuition-free community college, citing data that reinforces findings for Washington state.

States have been designing interesting and innovative strategies to provide low-cost or no-cost tuition for community colleges and help students begin to earn community college credits while still in high school.  

State legislators are paying more attention than ever before to providing the opportunity for all citizens to have access to postsecondary opportunities. While a high school degree used to be adequate for many jobs, research estimates that by 2020 nearly 70 percent of all jobs will require some kind of post-secondary training, certificate, or degree. For this reason, states have been considering many strategies for improving opportunities for students to have options for both college and careers after high school. 

As the Washington Roundtable/BCG study demonstrates, these are not hypothetical jobs. They are real opportunities for qualified Washington students right now. And, as the Puget Sound Business Journal reports today, the lack of a trained workforce has consequences for economic development.

Juno Therapeutics (Nasdaq: JUNO) earlier this year warned its future as a Seattle company was uncertain because of Washington tax policy and the state’s inability to train enough workers to support growing firms…

Right now, Juno hires 50 percent of its new employees from outside Washington state. Improving the state’s production of qualified workers could keep companies such as Juno in the state. 

The PSBJ story reports on the two gubernatorial candidates’ ideas for addressing the challenge. There’s no question that it will be a major 2017 legislative issue, even as lawmakers work to fully fund K-12 basic education.