Back to school: Higher education in Washington

A former governor, a candidate for governor and the new head of the state Higher Education Coordinating Board took on the complicated topic of higher education at Wednesday’s City Club of Tacoma luncheon.

With the demand for higher education rising, as well as the cost, the distinguished trio of Booth Gardner, Dino Rossi and James Sultan offered no easy answers to the 130 City Club members and guests gathered in the Sheraton ballroom. (Higher Education Coordinating Board member Herb Simon was originally scheduled as a featured speaker, but travel plans prevented him from attending.)

Workplace demands for employees with quality educations have effectively made bachelor’s degrees a requirement in some fields, necessitating the need to make higher education more available.

“It’s not so much where we sit, but where we stand,” said James Sultan, who joined the HECB in February from the New Jersey Commission on Higher Education, where he served as executive director.

The HECB a state agency governed by a 10-member citizen board. They are charged by state law with representing the “broad public interest” in higher education and are dedicated to expanding higher education opportunity in Washington.

The HECB is charged with producing a policy blueprint for higher education every four years. This year, for the first time, the Legislature and governor directed the board to submit an interim strategic plan in December. The final version will be completed in June 2004, following legislative review.

The interim plan calls for a 20 percent increase by 2010 in the number of students who graduate from college each year, and contains several recommendations to strengthen the connection between the higher education system and the state’s economic development objectives.

“They (schools) don’t need us to create a strategic plan for them,” Sultan said, adding the plan is needed to provide an overall vision.

Saying he “suffers from idealism,” Sultan said the HECB must “make the plan come alive” in order to deal with such problems as a shortage of baccalaureate degrees, artificial territories between schools, difficulties in transferring from two-year to four-year institutions and parochialism.

He decried the tendency to make things overly complicated in higher education, saying, “We must clearly assign responsibilities to get things done.”

Sultan said there could be severe consequences for not fulfilling the HECB’s plan, with the largest-ever class in the state of Washington set to graduate in 2008. A report released this year by the HECB shows a need for an additional 30,000 places by 2010.

Booth Gardner, who served as governor from 1984 to 1993, agreed, and offered some of his own ideas for improving the state’s higher education system:

– The HECB is free-standing and not under the office of the governor, he pointed out.

“They’re going to have to find a base,” advised Gardner, who is currently active on many community boards, serves as chairman of the Northwest Parkinson’s Foundation and is involved with numerous public policy issues facing the state.

– The University of Washington should be privatized, so that it’s not part of the state government.

– The University of Washington Bothell and Cascadia Community College, which currently share a campus in Bothell, should be turned into a four-year school.

– Relations between two-year and four-year schools needs to be improved.

– Running Start, which gives high school students a chance to take college courses, needs to be improved.

“It’s not working as well as it should,” Gardner said. “Students can’t get the classes they need at the local level.”

Dino Rossi, who was first elected to the Washington State Senate in 1996 from East King County’s 5th District, focused on the importance of education as it relates to economic development and financial aid.

“A piece of the puzzle is higher ed,” Rossi said, referring to the need for quality education that is a requirement for many jobs.

The increasing cost of getting that higher education is something that concerns Rossi, who served as Chairman of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee who last year led efforts to pass a two-year state budget that eliminated the largest deficit in state history without any new taxes.

“That will be one of the keys that makes all this work in the end,” the former state senator said of his commitment to providing financial aid for deserving students.

Rossi, a candidate for governor who works as a commercial real estate investment broker, said he wouldn’t have been able to attend and graduate with a bachelor’s degree from Seattle University had it not been for financial aid.

In the 2003-2005 biennium, the state appropriated $2.7 billion to higher education from the state general fund. The Higher Education Coordinating Board received $312 million, with 96 percent of that amount earmarked for student financial aid. State capital appropriations for higher education totaled $760 million in the 2003-2005 biennium. Historically, higher education has accounted for about 30 percent of the total state capital budget and averaged about 46 percent of total biennial bond authorizations.

“Higher education is the foundation of everything we do as a state,” Gardner said.