From "A" to "F": The Challenges Facing Public Higher Education in Washington

Munro Seminar Keynote

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


I am delighted to be back in the classroom. Having spent 23 years as a professor before going over to the administrative "dark side," it is a very comfortable place to be. Maybe too comfortable: Professor Weir, can I talk you into letting me stay while you go over to Old Main and take care of the budget? When it comes to budget, each year it is a smaller and smaller matter to have to deal with.

I was asked to talk about the challenges facing higher education in Washington. And as any professor would when addressing matters of policy importance in a classroom, my role is not to proselytize, not to give you "the answers." My responsibility is to raise the challenges and to bring reason and facts to bear.

The answers? They come from the bright people here in classroom, those publicly committed colleagues on the panel, and the thoughtful people seeking to be well-informed through such means as TVW. The answers to Washington's challenges must, of course, come from Washington.

Applying fact and reason to matters of public importance is of course, not limited to the classroom. That is the model of civic engagement set by the man for whom this institute is named: Longtime public servant, not only highly respected but well-loved around the state, Western Alum, and current Western Trustee Mr. Ralph Munro. He is with us today. Please join me in recognizing all he has meant to our state, nation and globe across decades of service.

Challenges to higher education in Washington? It really is not about the challenges to higher education in Washington. It is far more important than that. It is about the continuing health and well-being of the state we call home, that we as a proudly public university serve.

We at Western have a simple, overriding, and compelling strategic direction: to apply our areas of considerable strength to addressing areas of critical state need.

Washington faces major challenges. Given our university's strategic direction, then we at Western most certainly do as well.

I will begin by offering an assessment of the state of public higher education in Washington. And, this not being the Evergreen campus, letter grades will be assigned.

Assessing Public Higher Education in Washington

Efficiency and Productivity

How efficient are the six public universities in Washington? Pool what the taxpayers and our students shell out to pay for the baccalaureate degrees they earn and, on average, we are one of the best deals anywhere. For Washington, the average cost of the degrees we award (combining what our students pay and what the taxpayers provide) is lower than in 48 out of the other 49 states.

And, when it comes to productivity, the percentage of our students who end up completing degrees, Washington's publics, together, again rank #1 or #2 in the nation.

We can always do better, of course, and in the recent legislative session, we helped put in place major legislative revisions that would enable us to be even more efficient.

Last minute, those provisions were vetoed and for reasons I still do not understand since the Governor, two years ago, had implored us to come up with such thinking.

So, grade for efficiency and productivity? Nationally "best of class" would seem to deserve an A+ but, because of that last action – that veto – I am going to mark us down one grade for "failure to perform to fullest potential."


Efficient and productive, yes. But, what about cost? Here, Western's average cost per full-time student has remained steady, year after year. For the last 15 years. Actually, cost per student has dropped in the most recent years. This, all the while growing in the more expensive STEM (Science, technology) programs, adding more costly, higher tech services and infrastructure, and expanding services to improve retention and graduation.

So, when it comes to constraining costs while improving services, looks like public higher education in Washington deserves a solid A.


That last grade may leave those of us writing tuition checks incredulous. A grade of "A" for cost?

But note I was talking cost and not price. What students and their families pay, the price, has been going up.

Why? Not because cost has been going up, I already reported that costs have been tightly controlled. No, price is on the rise because state support has dropped. In the less than three years I have been at Western, state support for your education has dropped from over 60% to 34%. Hope I am not the casual factor there.

Put differently, you, the students here this morning, were covering 40% of the costs of instruction in 2009; this fall, you will be covering 66% of the costs of your education.

So price is on the rise. But, that still leaves Washington somewhat below national averages when it comes to tuition. If we are to grade on a national curve, then, our grade has dropped from what was, historically, a B+ to be proud of, down to something in the C range.

Equity of Access

Why worry about price? Well, one reason strikes at the core of why have public universities in the first place.

We do share, as a state, a belief that access to the opportunities afforded by higher education should be independent of the circumstances of one's birth. High tuition can, then, pose a barrier to realization of that public purpose for higher education.

That commitment, by the way, may follow from inspiring commitments to social justice. But, note how it rests solidly on the bedrock of self-interest as well. At least if you accept my premise that a state's wealth and well-being is best measured by the developed talent of its people – all its people.

But note, as our state has, that keeping tuition down for everybody is a very inefficient way to achieve that critical purpose. Far better to focus directly on those in need through financial aid.

Here, Washington is among national leaders with need-based state financial aid – directly through the state need grant, less obviously through reallocation of tuition. This last legislative session and, amidst huge financial challenges, our elected leaders added over $100M to the state need grant.

Grading on a national curve, we would seem to deserve a solid B or perhaps even a B+. Here, though, we probably need to abandon the curve because, when it comes to commitments to equity, there are absolute standards we should adhere to; the rest of the nation is doing a miserable job in this arena; the federal government appears to be on the verge of taking a big step back from its longstanding commitments to financial aid; and we should not take great comfort in the fact that our state is doing not quite as bad a job compared to the rest of the country.


What about quality? You have already sensed that, in my "report card," I am going from the areas of excellence to those merely satisfactory. Now, I am leaving the realm of the A's, B's, and C's. And, moving into the D's and F's.

How can I be talking about quality in that context? There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that the six public four-years in Washington offer some of the highest quality baccalaureate and graduate education available in the country. I know that Western's baccalaureate degrees are among the very best available anywhere. So do the 13,000 applicants who competed last year for the 3,500 openings at Western.

The self-evident high quality is the result of years of thoughtful support and commitments – within universities, across the state. Efforts sustained over decades. It can, though, quickly become history. Current high quality is under very serious threat, particularly as much of the rest of the country is coming out of the great recession before Washington. Most other states did not cut higher education as much to begin with and many are now reinvesting.

We see the threat in staffing changes: the freeze on filling tenure track faculty positions, the greater reliance on adjuncts, the increasingly effective raiding of our faculty, and the inability to compete with peers when it comes to hiring the best and the brightest.

I could go on but, today, I would assign a grade of "A" when it comes to quality. But, when it comes to our capacity to sustain that quality, I assign a "D" – seriously "needs improvement."

Capacity to Build Brighter Futures for Washington

The preceding are all well and good. But, they are basically means and not ends – inputs and not outputs. Why worry about efficiency, cost, price, equity of access, quality? Because they bear on our foremost responsibility as publicly purposed institutions: to build brighter futures for Washington.

Here, I see the greatest challenge we face. I wish to alarm you. I will be assigning a grade of "F."

Why an F? I am tempted to give the answer that occurred to me years ago when a particularly unsuccessful student indignantly asked me, "Why did you give me an F?" The answer that fleetingly occurred to me: "I gave you an "F" because there is no grade of 'G.'"

Percent of Adults with an Associate Degree or Higher by Age Group - U.S. & Leading OECD Countries (graph)

Consider educational attainment by age group, and look around the world. Are the coming generations better educated than their parents? Yes. Country after country. For rapidly developing countries – China, India, Brazil – the differences are particularly dramatic; these societies are making major investments in the younger generation and, consequently, in their nation's increased well-being for generations to come.

That means, in this flattening globe with a knowledge based economy, these countries are going to be ever more competitive as the younger generations replace the older generations.

There is only one significant outlier I spot in the data. It is the United States and, for us, the younger generations are less well educated than are the older generations. Compared to the rest of the world, we have it backwards.

As a nation, we are not just dragging up the rear. We are going in the wrong direction.

And, in this dangerous national context, where is the state of Washington?

Public undergraduate 4-year participation rates based on the population age 17-64, Fall 2005 (graph)

When it comes to opening doors to public baccalaureate education for our people where does Washington rank? 48th out of 50.

At the bottom, nationally, in a nation badly behind most of the rest of the developing world.

It is not just that, as a state we fund public four-year higher education at way below national averages. It is also the fact that we provide for very few students, even at that below-average level of support per student. The pipeline to baccalaureate education in Washington resembles less a pipeline and more a pipette.

This certainly is not because our sons and daughters are less academically promising. It is not because our younger people lack ambition. This is the result of a long-term policy orientation in our state: we import developed talent rather than fully develop our own.

From Boeing to Microsoft and beyond, we depend upon a well-educated population. So, how have we gotten away with that pipette capacity? Basically, it is because Washington is a place people like to move to.

The consequence? We educate our sons and daughters just well enough to go to work for those who come from outside to take the best paying jobs.

There is an obvious fairness – even justice issue here.

There is also an increasingly practical concern. The most recent data on inter-state net migration by educational attainment show we are losing our edge in attracting the well-educated to our state. Being a great place to live has saved our bacon to this point; in the years ahead we must face up to the responsibilities of growing our own.

Here, I think, is the greatest challenge public higher education faces in Washington. It's providing the higher education capacity to allow brighter futures for Washington and for Washingtonians. Behind the rest of the states in a nation also dangerously behind, how can the grade be anything but "F" for "failing."

Western's Role

Now, I began by saying that Washington's challenges are also Western's challenges. The reason is simple: our driving strategic commitment is apply our considerable strengths to addressing areas of critical state need.

So, what are we at Western doing? How can we help with that essential expanded pipeline to excellence?

First, we are not chasing simplistic, clichéd solutions. These problems are serious as a heart attack and we must first toss aside the inclination to engage in "magical thinking." We must come together to engage our best thinking, just what this Munro Institute is intended to do.

For example, it is not about simply becoming more efficient. We are already the most efficient in the nation. We continually strive to be ever more so. However, it is absurd to think there's an enormous efficiency solution waiting out there for us to find that nobody else in the nation has stumbled across. Magical thinking.

As another example, it is not about moving everything to the Internet. More magical thinking. We do not teach history or biology or philosophy, we teach people. Higher education is not a mechanical transfer of information; it is a fire inspirationally ignited through human interaction. People teach people. Even over the Internet. As far as I can glimpse into the future, technologies will greatly extend the effectiveness by which mentors and learners work together, but the basic dependence on highly talented faculty will remain. Indeed, it will increase as we depend even more on talented faculty not only at the forefront of their own fields but, also, skilled innovators making the pedagogical most of the new technologies. And, hence, our basic cost structure persists – our enterprise remains talent based, not machine based.

At Western, we also know the solution requires working very closely with our critically important two-year partners. We have formed the Northwest Higher Education Coalition with Whatcom Community College, Bellingham Technical College, Northwest Indian College, Skagit Valley College, Everett Community College, Peninsula College, and Olympic College. Together, we are pooling resources, ideas, and, as important, a shared belief in working together to meet Washington's challenges.

We have become ever more clear about what defines us – our promise to our students captured in the words "active minds, changing lives," our promise to our state ("it is not about Western, it is about the difference Western makes for Washington"), … and the commitment that is most fundamental to our capacity to keep those two promises: protecting premier quality.

Accepting today's financial picture as the "new normal," all our decisions have been driven by the need to protect the value of what we continue to do: value to our students, value to our state.

A couple of quick examples of what that means for Washington and our students.

Employers line up to land a Western grad. The two biggest employers of Western grads are Microsoft and Boeing. Now, we turn out great software engineers and students adept at designing aircraft wings from the most advanced composites. But, by far, those Western alums at Microsoft and Boeing come from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and the College of Business and Economics. Boeing and Microsoft are complex companies demanding wide-ranging expertise to successfully and globally compete. So, in that area where we are, as a state, failing so badly, keep in mind that it is really about expanding baccalaureate capacity. Period! And, not about just certain select fields.

Another quick example. Two weeks ago, I toured Pro CNC, a local and very successful high tech manufacturer of precision machine parts. "Cutting edge" in more than one sense. Started in 1997 by six Western grads. These young, emerging entrepreneurs had been a part of our highly regarded Vehicle Research Institute. Their ambition? To manufacture sports cars, of course. Today, they provide 51 well-paying jobs here in Bellingham, turning blocks of metal into precision parts for Boeing and the airlines. So, when it comes to the pipeline, it is not just about fairness for our own sons and daughters: it is what they do for our communities when they are allowed to fully develop their talents. And, as important as they certainly are, it is also not just about airplanes. Pro CNC's latest, fastest growing and very profitable manufacturing line: mouthpieces for high-end saxophones.

So, the foundations are solidly there. We are doing our part, protecting those foundations. There is simply no way to dodge this reality, though: increased access to quality is going to take increased state commitment to public higher education.

Protecting premier quality is the bedrock upon which our promise to our students and our promise to our state rests. We cannot place that quality at further risk simply to achieve greater capacity. Increased access to mediocrity is just that: mediocrity, albeit much more of it. Enough for our state's future to drown in.

Looking Ahead

Will the state step forward to meet this challenge? I am far more optimistic today than I was several years ago.

For 30 years, serving in Oregon, I and colleagues looked north, witnessing a state that really "got it," really understood the value of developing the talent of its people.

My biggest shock when I came here three years ago was that, in the offices and corridors of the capitol, the conversations I heard were not the Washington I remembered – decades ago, when higher education was part of the solution. Four-year higher education was not on anybody's agenda and, indeed, seemed part of the problem in several nooks and crannies.

There was an entirely different atmosphere in Olympia this session. People worked creatively to solve problems instead of point fingers; they looked to understand critical public policy matters rather than operate at the level of the cliché; they looked for what would work rather than for what would make a sound bite; they stood firmly for what they knew to be in the long-term best interests of our state.

Important to this outcome was the leadership shown by the private sector. They were in Olympia on behalf of the connection of public higher education to our state's future. And they were not alone. In numbers not seen in prior sessions, our elected officials did hear from parents, from students, from faculty and staff, from unions and from management, from donors, and from community members. And, again to a degree not seen in prior sessions, these groups all were all on the same page.

In the legislative deliberations, there was an evident connection between the two challenges where I gave us the poorest grades: protecting future quality and providing baccalaureate capacity commensurate with our needs.

Why, during the critical conference process did key legislators step forward and, facing daunting budget challenges and critical social needs, draw a line in the sand: no further cuts to higher education? Why did they overwhelming pass major reforms in higher education? And, why did they do so with real bipartisanship?

It was because they had come to fully understand the threat to quality: that decades of building quality could be rapidly undone.

I will take it closer to home. Western has been historically underfunded on a per student basis. However you dice the numbers. The legislature did not take the path of least resistance and cut uniformly across the board; they did address about half that historical underfunding of Western.

Why? There is not a doubt in my mind that, were we an average, mediocre regional university, our arguments for funding fairness would never have gotten anywhere. But, because Western is known in Olympia to be the state's premier, undergraduate, destination university—that we are delivering high quality—legislators knew they had to act to sustain that excellence.

Quality does count! In more ways than the obvious. This, key legislators understood. Protecting quality remains paramount.

When higher education takes a cut of over half a billion dollars and when tuitions are raised at steep percentage rates, it is hard to be positive about the session. But, we must recognize the times and the full range of legislative challenges that had to be faced. When it came to standing up for public higher education, my concluding grade. The higher ed aspect of the legislative session earns a solid and bi-partisan "A" from me.

That's really the mid-term grade, though. Coming sessions contain final exams.

Tough session, yes. There will be further bumps in the road. But, looking ahead, it is the reemergence of support for higher education as part of the solution to Washington's needs that makes me confident that we are up to the challenges that are ahead.

So there it is. Our paramount challenge – as a state, as a university proudly dedicated to public purposes – is to sustain and then, in the biennia ahead, to expand access to high quality baccalaureate education.

Page Updated 11.27.2013