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Originally published Monday, May 28, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Time to renew a commitment to high-quality, accessible higher education

Washington must renew its state commitment to quality, accessible public higher education. To get there, we must not only protect higher-education funding but re-establish it as a top state budget priority.

Special to The Times

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FIFTY years ago, Seattle hosted a world's fair and became "The City that Invented the Future."

Back then, engineers performed calculations with slide rules, not computers. Boeing's most advanced commercial airplanes were fashioned from aluminum, not space-age composites. And Fred Hutchinson's name was still associated with baseball rather than cancer research.

Much has changed in the intervening five decades. Today, Washington-based companies are global leaders in software and information services, electronic commerce, aerospace and precision manufacturing, biotechnology and life sciences, global philanthropy and international trade.

In fact, our state economy depends on innovation more than virtually any other part of the country.

The foundation for that innovation historically has come from our institutions of higher education, particularly our public research universities. Their projects translate into new jobs, new companies and even new industries. And higher education plays an absolutely crucial role in preparing our young people for the best job opportunities, especially in today's global economy.

That's why we, as regents for our state's two major research universities, believe more must be done to preserve and strengthen these valuable assets. And why we've been so concerned by the erosion of state support for higher education over the past few years.

The Great Recession's impacts have been felt in corporate offices, union halls and family dining rooms across Washington state. They've also been felt in the classrooms, labs and libraries of our colleges and universities. As state revenue collections failed to keep pace with spending commitments, higher education was one of the hardest-hit sectors of state government.

Total state general-fund spending for higher education has plummeted since 2007, with the four-year schools seeing their state support drop by roughly half over that period. As a direct consequence, tuition increases have stretched the budgets of families across the state.

As a state, we cannot afford for this to continue.

We know that by 2018 two out of three new family jobs will require postsecondary education. According to a 2010 study by the Georgetown University Center on Education and Workforce, Washington will rank 6th in jobs that require postsecondary education or special training.

The threshold for career entry is only going up. If we want to fill those jobs with Washington's kids, we have to expand access to college and increase the number of students earning four-year degrees.

According to the Washington Roundtable's Benchmarks for a Better Washington, our state currently ranks just 38th in the nation in bachelor's degrees awarded per capita. The Roundtable's goal: make Washington a top 10 state. Reaching that benchmark will ensure that the best job opportunities created by local employers go to Washington graduates. It will drive innovation and improve quality of life.

There are bright spots on the higher-education horizon. The fact this year's state budget contains no further cuts to higher education is a step in the right direction. We applaud lawmakers for protecting higher education in the face of another budget crisis.

Further, legislation passed this year will provide colleges and universities more operating flexibility to make the most of their limited budget dollars. If voters approve a proposed constitutional amendment this fall, the University of Washington and Washington State University will be allowed to diversify the investment of university funds to generate more money to pump back into the classroom.

A lot of oars are starting to pull in the same direction. But the simple fact is that Washington must renew its state commitment to quality, accessible public higher education. To get there, we must not only protect higher-education funding but re-establish it as a top state budget priority. In doing so, we will move closer to ensuring our young people are prepared to succeed in our own state's economy. If we do that, there's no limit to the future they will invent.

William S. Ayer, left, is chairman of Alaska Airlines. He serves on the Board of Regents at the University of Washington. Theodor P. Baseler is the president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. He serves on the Board of Regents at Washington State University.

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