College is still our best hope

Ronald R. Thomas  The Spokesman-Review Opinion, June 2, 2012

The rites of spring are annually celebrated in May and June at college campuses across the region with symbol-rich commencement ceremonies, joyous families and excited graduates – from Gonzaga to Whitworth, Washington State University to Eastern Washington University and across a host of local community colleges.

This year, we witnessed a common ritual that is not always enacted in the spring. On May 2, Gov. Chris Gregoire brought to a conclusion a difficult series of legislative sessions by signing, at long last, a supplemental budget. Just as new graduates are taking stock of the paths their futures will take, it’s a perfect time for community leaders and concerned citizens to take stock of what was accomplished in Olympia – and what was not – and to look ahead to the path before us.

For three years in a row, the Legislature made very deep cuts in funding for public higher education. Funding for financial aid was increased, but not nearly enough to keep pace with student needs. The budget passed this year, however, does not make further cuts in higher education. Those of us who believe (and the data prove it) that a college education is the most effective means to social mobility and economic prosperity are relieved that the state has taken a closer look at the needs of students and found other budget-balancing alternatives as we move into an uncertain future.

The absence of further cuts this year is just cause for rejoicing. But we cannot afford to linger long in celebration. This year’s budget simply means we stopped digging the deep hole in which we remain standing. The challenge of next year and beyond is how to move in the right direction – into the future – not simply to stop marching cravenly into the past. There are three important steps we must take:

Strengthen support for the neediest college students. The State Need Grant program is supporting only about three of four students who are eligible for aid. We must find ways to serve more students, leverage other funds and encourage on-time graduation. While we are grateful no further cuts were made to work-study, current funding for the program is only one-third of what it was just a few years ago. Work-study is vital for nonprofit organizations and other employers, and it provides real-life work experiences and career direction for students. It also helps students pay part of their own way through college, gaining important work skills and enhancing the prospects of graduation.

Improve public college funding. A strong system of community and technical colleges and great public universities is absolutely vital to our future as a state. Past cuts have forced some much-needed trimming, but they have also caused an increase in class sizes and dangerous reductions in critical student services that are essential for retention and graduation and play a vital part in developing informed and engaged citizens in a fully integrated college experience.

Keep the promise to middle school students. Low-income students in seventh and eighth grades were promised that if they finished high school and stayed out of trouble, enough help would be there for them to cover tuition at public college rates. The College Bound Scholarship has been wildly successful and is growing from 15,000 students this fall to as many as 23,000 in 2015. These are exactly the students we must inspire to enter college if we are going to have any real chance of raising to the necessary level of educational attainment statewide.

The Independent Colleges of Washington – 10 nonprofit private liberal arts colleges – stand ready to assist in raising educational attainment as well. We award one out of five bachelor’s and advanced degrees earned in Washington. And we do it while our students receive only 2 percent of the state higher education budget. Supporting students with financial aid and allowing them to choose the college that best fits their needs and goals is about as good an investment as we can make.

The Spokane region is blessed with strong, collaborative partnerships among higher education and business leaders, and is poised to bring that strong ethic of collaborative partnership to state-level discussions about higher education policy when Ray Lawton, retired owner of Lawton Printing and former trustee of Whitworth University, joins the newly created Washington Student Achievement Council on July 1 as the representative of ICW. Public and private college representatives and citizen leaders will take charge of the new state agency, the successor to the Higher Education Coordinating Board.

We extend our heartfelt thanks to state policymakers for stopping the higher education cuts this year. We look forward to working with legislators, the new state council and business and community leaders on the next steps to building a future of promise for students, families and employers all across Washington.

Ronald R. Thomas is president of the University of Puget Sound and chairman of the board of directors of the Independent Colleges of Washington.