Create opportunities for access and success at Washington’s colleges and universities

The academic needs of Washington residents demand new approaches to supporting and delivering educational programs, writes Whitman College President George Bridges. We must place students first — giving highest priority to increasing academic access and success for undergraduates.

By George Bridges Special to The Seattle Times

In his State of the Union address, President Obama “… put colleges and universities on notice,” asserting that unless they find ways to keep their costs from rising, the federal government would intervene by withholding federally funded financial aid.

The president’s challenge complicates an already difficult situation in our state. As our governor and Legislature continue to struggle with serious budget issues, college and university leaders have repeatedly voiced concern over the impact that erosion of state support has had on their institutions.

Most leaders in higher education and government agree on at least four facts about the plight of Washington’s colleges and universities.

First, the model of funding public higher education is broken and our flagship and regional universities rest at a tipping point that threatens a sharp drop in the quality of education afforded undergraduates. Declines in state funding have contributed significantly to this problem.

Second, financial aid for students who lack the resources to attend college has become an increasingly critical need. The current Washington State Need Grant and work-study programs represent a safety net that preserves access to higher education. These funds provide a ladder of educational opportunity and economic mobility for our poorest in-state students. Any reductions in state support for these students will virtually guarantee that poor Washingtonians remain poor.

Third, the current practice of supporting public institutions by increasing the proportion of out-of-state students who pay significantly higher levels of tuition than in-state students has the adverse effect of restricting Washington’s own residents from attending our public colleges and universities. As an adaptation to reduced levels of state funding, the practice is a budget-relieving measure to preserve current programs — at Washington residents’ expense.

Fourth, the decline in state funding of higher education has fueled a counterproductive competition among institutions for limited state support. This zero-sum contest between various sectors of higher education — community colleges, regional universities and research universities — has had the effect of Balkanizing educational providers.

Unless a miraculous economic recovery occurs and state government places significantly higher priority on funding colleges and universities, the “new normal” in state support is likely to be less, not more. Nevertheless, I believe we can reverse the tragedy unfolding before us.

The academic needs of Washington residents demand new approaches to supporting and delivering educational programs. We must begin by placing students first — that is, giving highest priority to increasing academic access and success for the state’s aspiring undergraduates. Our college and university presidents from all sectors — public and private — must lead with a unified commitment to advancing a new approach to funding higher education and much greater collaboration between the different educational sectors.

Private, nonprofit schools like Whitman, where I am president, rely on a funding model that differs from the state-supported model of funding public institutions. Our schools require that students whose families have the capacity to pay tuition at high levels do so. Those with less capacity pay less. We believe this is a logical and equitable approach to sustaining quality and ensuring access.

Using this model, our colleges educate a very diverse group of students and produce 20 percent of all degrees awarded in the state. Adopting this model of funding for public institutions, along with guarantees that commensurate increases in student financial aid accompany tuition increases, would offer public institutions much-needed financial support at little or no added cost to the state.

Another approach to increasing access to colleges and universities would be to expand partnerships between public and private institutions. Many colleges and universities across the country participate in consortial arrangements in order to increase the range and types of programs in which their students may enroll, while reducing costs to their individual institutions.

We should build upon some of the excellent public/private partnerships currently serving Washington students, making them a much more robust and integral part of how colleges and universities deliver their academic programs.

For example, Heritage University, a private institution based in Toppenish, has arrangements with three community colleges — Columbia Basin, Highline and Big Bend — where students can earn a Heritage bachelor’s degree on those campuses.

At Whitman, we have partnerships with Walla Walla High School and Walla Walla Community College whereby a few advanced students each year attend classes for credit here tuition-free.

Similarly, Seattle University offers courses in management and other aspects of business for local high-school students in its Albers School of Business and Economics.

These are examples of partnerships that place students first, creating opportunities they would not otherwise have.

Washingtonians seek colleges and universities of the highest quality that are accessible to our children and grandchildren. However, achieving high quality and access will require innovative approaches to funding our public institutions and establishing many more collaborative partnerships.

No single sector of higher education or state government can reverse the erosion of support our colleges and universities have experienced. Yet, together we must begin the difficult, yet promising, work of reversing this trend — thereby securing through new models of funding and collaboration a more hopeful future for all Washington students.

George Bridges served as professor of sociology and dean and vice provost of undergraduateeducation at the University of Washington and now is president of Whitman College in Walla Walla.