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Originally published January 13, 2012 at 4:26 PM | Page modified February 6, 2012 at 11:40 AM

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UPenn report confirms state officials failed leadership on higher education

A University of Pennsylvania report offers powerful testimony to Washington's failed political leadership on higher education.

Seattle Times Editorial

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FAILED political leadership has left Washington state's university system disjointed and financially imperiled. Access to higher education has declined. Because of limited resources, the institutions do not produce enough bachelor's degrees, forcing employers to hire workers from out of state — and from out of the country.

Times editorials have made this point repeatedly. Powerful validation now comes from a damning report by the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. Penn researchers looked at states underserving their college-age students.

The study found that state institutions starved of critical funding have been forced to spend more time surviving than mapping out reforms to a sustainable future.

Blame is accurately placed at the feet of Gov. Chris Gregoire, House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown. They have not been effective champions of higher education. Before the 2008 recession, they prioritized everything else in boom years that saw a stunning expansion of government. Since then, the Legislature has used higher education funding to fill its budget holes.

Gregoire has not set an ambitious long-term agenda or used her executive bully pulpit to rally lawmakers and the public around higher ed. Chopp has often led his party to place more value and attention on social services than on economic engines such as the college and university system.

University leaders have not always spoken with one voice. That every-man-for-himself strategy complicated efforts to chart a unified strategy round governance, reforms and better efficiencies.

But the timing of Penn's report is crucial. It should end the frustrating inertia plaguing Olympia.

The Legislature must reset and reposition our universities and colleges for better funding and performance.

Gregoire recently attempted to address the paltry production of college degrees in high-demand fields such as engineering by funding 850 new slots in engineering programs at the University of Washington and Washington State University. That is a start.

What is needed is an effective pre-K-through-college system. The fragmented approach, attention on the K-12 system but none or not enough elsewhere, has been ineffective.

The Penn report confirms many of the central issues that have long nagged higher ed:

• Only 40 of every 100 Washington students who start ninth grade will enter college on time.

• The percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college has remained virtually unchanged since 1991, yet two-thirds of all future jobs will require some postsecondary education.

• College affordability has declined precipitously.

A few moderate lawmakers, particularly Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, stand out for their effort to pursue long-term education strategies. Another sign of hope is that a recent meeting about aerospace jobs and engineering programs garnered the attention of Speaker Chopp, who stayed for the entire two-hour session.

The Penn study's lasting value is in jump-starting the Legislature into corrective action.

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