Is College a Good Investment? Challenges & Opportunities for the State of Washington

Remarks Delivered to Bellingham Bay Rotary

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Thank you for inviting me to speak with you this afternoon.  As you probably know by now, it’s my style to “speak with” rather than “speak to” groups like this, because, selfishly, I see this as an opportunity for me to learn from you.  My discipline, Political Science, teaches me that the most effective, most trusted leaders are not those who come bearing answers, but who ask hard questions that take people beyond their zones of comfort…and listen.  I believe there is not only much to be said in favor of “the wisdom of crowds”—maybe not all crowds, perhaps—but also that the legitimacy of the directions and aspirations we set for institutions like Western, and communities like Bellingham, flows from including and listening to many different voices.

At any rate, I will speak with candor about what I see in the future of higher education generally and for Western in particular—the opportunities, the challenges—and what I see our role is in fulfilling our mission to apply our strengths to serve the needs of the state of Washington, and beyond.  Because we are your university, both as citizens of Bellingham and Washington’s taxpayers, we value your thoughts on how to help us better serve you.  So I do want to leave time at the end for an exchange in the hopes that you will take me outside my zones of comfort, and contribute your thinking as well.


Transformation in Higher Education: The Road Ahead

It may have been awhile since you set foot on a college campus—perhaps not since you went yourself, or when you sent a son or daughter off to college.  If that is the case, I heartily invite you to come up the hill and visit us, for an athletic event, music or dance performance, hear a speaker, or perhaps even—gasp—to take a class.  What you will find is that today’s university—at least leading national universities like Western—looks and operates very different from the places that you and I attended.

There have been tremendous changes, transformation, really, occurring in higher education for at least the last 15 years, and accelerating in the last five.  Many, have been for the better—in terms of the diversity of the students, the way that education is delivered (nobody has to bang blackboard erasers together, I assure you), and how universities are leaving their brick-and-mortar locations to be where people are, at different times in their lives, in their careers, across their regions and the world.  Other changes, which have not been so beneficial, like the increasing “privatizing” of our public institutions by shifting the burden of paying for education to tuition from public support. 

Two previous eras of transformation in American Higher Education that I like to remind people of for context are the Morrill Act of 1862, which created the land grant university system, and the G.I. Bill, providing access to higher education for returning soldiers.

There are a couple important points to make here.  First, both of those epoch-making events were essentially about expanding access—to higher education and the better life that it provides, for a new segment of the population.  And second, while we like to pat ourselves on the back now for these visionary acts, the higher education establishments of their respective times were dead set against them.  Provide a college education to the children of agricultural and factory workers?  Subsidize the education of unwashed veterans from the European and Pacific Theaters?  Surely you must be joking.  And yet each was clearly an essential step that facilitated the economic growth and global ascendancy of our country, expanded the middle class, and enriched the learning environments on campuses for all students.

But, let’s return now to the present day.  Transformations can sometimes be difficult to see when in their midst, but consider the following:

  • Major, prestigious universities are now competing among themselves to offer classes with their best professors to hundreds of thousands around the world.  For free. 
  • Much of the world’s future science and creative advances will be done beyond our shores by those no longer relying upon our campuses as their academic launching pads.
  • Doubt about the value of a college degree has begun to creep into the thoughts of prospective students and employers alike.  This fall a national newsmagazine ran a cover story with the title, “Is College a lousy investment?”  And there is some talk that industry and commerce might begin to abandon the baccalaureate degree as the credential for employment and advancement.
  • And of course, as the costs of private institutions have soared, and those of public institutions have been shifted more to tuition, student debt loads have become a drag on the upward economic mobility of graduates and the national economy as a whole.

Those are concerns about the situation with higher education nationally.  Here are a couple more local things I’d like to point out:

  • High school graduation rates in this state are flat, or declining. 
  • One in two children born last year in Washington was born to Hispanic parents.  Among other things that means that there will be an increasingly large percentage of first-generation college students coming to our doors. 
  • If we are lucky.  The demographers' predictions are stark: if college-going rates by ethnic and racial category do not change, then, with our changing demography, fewer and fewer will be going to college.  And, average family incomes, consumer purchasing, and GNP will be headed down.  Luck alone will not avert this issue; aspirations of the coming generations must be our first target.
  • Until now, every generation in America has been more educated than its parents.  Other countries have discovered that key to our success, and now that trend is taking hold and accelerating everywhere around the world—except for here.  This will be the first generation to be less educated than its parents.

So, there are challenges ahead for us as a country, in an increasingly competitive, global economy where intellectual capital will be increasingly valuable; there are challenges for higher education, as the value of our “product” comes into question and people seek new ways of accessing it; and there are of course challenges for Western, in defining and maintaining our “niche” and the ways we contribute to the vitality of Washington state.


Is College a Good Investment?

Doubting this now seems to be a popular sentiment, aided by the evidence of legions of young people who haven’t been able to get jobs.  And, as a public institution, that’s a question that should be answered with a resounding “Yes!” for both tuition paying students and the taxpayer.  A couple things:

  • Yes, for both individuals and society: There is extensive data showing that college graduates far exceed non-graduates on  just about every metric of human health and flourishing, from lifetime earnings, longevity, to reliance on government dependence.
  • There are jobs out there now, especially for people with post-secondary skills.  We hear about many employers who are unable to fill the jobs they have for lack of trained people.  Now, some of that is due to their refusal to train people in-house the way they used to—those training programs don’t contribute to the bottom line, after all—but some of that is due to the fact that people don’t have the skills to fill them.  That is especially true in Washington state, where we rank near the bottom nationally in terms of baccalaureate attainment.
  • The jobs of the future will require baccalaureate education more than ever: A recent report from the Center on Education and the Workforce in Washington, D.C. says that in the next decade, 67% of the jobs in Washington state will require a post-high school education, putting Washington among the top-ranking states in the nation.  Of course companies like Amazon, Boeing, Microsoft, and all their subcontractors need engineers, computer scientists, and other technical experts—and so we need to produce more people with STEM degrees to fill them, and of course more STEM teachers to put those skills and aspirations in place from an early age.  Now, that’s a problem of baccalaureate capacity, because if we fail to step up as a state, people with those credentials will be imported from other states to fill them.  I don’t know about you, but something rankles me about educating our sons and daughters just well enough to go to work for those people who get the better paying jobs.

So why don’t schools like Western produce more engineers and fewer English and Philosophy majors?  We get asked that question down in Olympia all the time, and there are two good answers we can give now, but both of them ultimately turn on one thing: sufficient dollars to do it. 

  • One answer to that question is that we are trying to produce more engineers, by submitting a proposal this coming legislative session to take our excellent programs in Engineering Technology—plastics, composites, etc—and turn them into an ABET accredited Engineering program.  With relatively little investment from the state we can double production; but we’ll see how that goes.
  • The second answer, and the one that cuts deeper, is that we can’t produce more engineers and fewer English majors because the less expensive English majors subsidize the more expensive STEM degrees.  And since more than 70% of our operating budget comes from tuition dollars these days, we can’t afford to replace the students we can make money on with students whose education costs more than tuition.

The value of a liberal arts education—which always has, and always will lie at the core of a Western degree, whatever the major—runs much deeper than that.  The critical thinking, communication, and “EQ” skills are what employers around the state ask me most about when I talk with them.  The Boeings, Amazons and Microsofts are complex international corporations that need legions of non-scientists to function.  Our former Trustee and now-retired COO of Boeing, John Warner, himself an engineer, likes to say that for every engineer they needed 2 or 3 liberal arts people to translate and keep them out of trouble.  And of course, liberal arts grads are often very well represented in management roles.  At Boeing, where over 1500 Western alums are currently employed, former VP Karen Freeman ran the Finance for Commercial Aviation Division.  Her major was German.  Julie Larson-Green, our keynote speaker at this year’s Bellingham Business Forum runs Microsoft’s Windows division.  Her degree at Western was in Business Administration.

So, there are a great many opportunities in this complex and changing future, and our state—diverse, home to some of the most dynamic technology companies in the world, and situated on an international border—is in a particularly good position to take advantage of them.  And Western, for that matter is too, by protecting our core excellence in the ever more relevant liberal arts, and focusing relentlessly on operational efficiency and academic innovation.  Crystal balls are murky, and some of our visions of the future will be wrong—some of our proposed responses to it, too, but that is the cost of innovation. 

Thank you.  I welcome your comments, criticisms and ideas.

Page Updated 11.27.2013