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Originally published Saturday, May 24, 2014 at 4:35 PM

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Guest: How to graduate more students with bachelor’s degrees in Washington state

Washington should carefully consider how its remaining pool of diminished resources is invested in the statewide higher education system, writes guest columnist Eric Spangenberg.

Special to The Times


FROM low tech to high tech, the business successes of our state are well-documented. While such successes mean economic opportunity, Washington is failing to deliver on this potential with regard to those growing up in the state.

Why? Partially due to Washington’s management of higher education. The state ranks nationally among the highest in tuition increases after raising it 64 percent over the last five years, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities’ data. The center’s data shows the state has cut per-student funding by more than $3,000 per student. It now spends at a level $1,000 below the national spending average per student. The National Center for Education Statistics ranks the state 35th in bachelor’s degrees produced per capita.

As affordable education becomes less attainable, Washington natives are more likely to work for a degree-holding boss who moved here from another state. This failure to adequately provide opportunity for our citizens is unacceptable. The state must rethink our higher-education model.

Rather than mourn the severity of recent cuts, Washington should carefully consider how its remaining pool of diminished resources is invested in the statewide higher-education system.

A major challenge is the historically disproportionate funding of community colleges relative to four-year-degree institutions. More than 50 percent of the state’s higher-education budget is now dedicated to our two-year system, compared to a national average of just over 20 percent.

Nationally, more than 80 percent of students entering community colleges say they eventually want to transfer to earn a bachelor’s degree, but only 10 percent do so within six years.

While disappointing, this statistic points to great opportunity for Washington. Capitalizing on this opportunity, however, requires greater investment in four-year institutions and accountability to get more students transferred from two-year colleges.

Most recent reports indicate that state funding of our 30-plus community colleges is not contingent upon outcome measures such as graduation or transfer rates. In fairness, such measures are not specifically used to determine budgets for our four-year institutions either.

One shortsighted response has been to simply remove the descriptor “community” from two-year institutions and allow them to deliver bachelor’s degrees. Although sometimes valid, this rapid national movement is precarious because many such schools have not evolved to offer four-year programs with the levels of quality and accreditation associated with established four-year institutions. Furthermore, the public is generally not aware of the inherent quality assurances associated with accreditation. Not all bachelor’s degrees are created equal.

Successfully graduating more bachelor’s-degree holders requires greater capacity at our state’s accredited four-year institutions. Strong, budget-based accountability for all state institutions of higher-education and proportionate shifts in funding from two-year schools to four-year schools could help facilitate such a change.

Higher education has spent the last millennium dealing with old-school challenges using old-school solutions. Most institutions of higher education still rely on delivery methods that vary little from those of our medieval predecessors: students reading textbooks and attending professors’ lectures.

This model is labor and capital intensive, as well as enormously costly to society in terms of relocation and employment opportunity costs for students and their families. There will always be a place for face-to-face education, and many of our state institutions do a great job in this realm.

Resource and access issues, however, mean the state should provide alternative methods to those who cannot, or reasonably choose not to conform to traditional brick-and-mortar models.

Some institutions have seized the opportunity and answered the call of the marketplace with contemporary solutions. For example, building on a thriving online undergraduate program offered in partnership with Washington State University’s Global Campus, The Carson College introduced completely online MBA and executive MBA programs in 2009.

These programs, which now have almost 400 students, are built on today’s latest advances in online learning, and have been ranked since 2012 in the top 10 in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Similarly, Western Governors University offers a host of online bachelor’s degree programs at affordable tuition rates. These programs dwarf many in-person programs statewide that struggle to grow enrollment.

A common barrier to innovation is hesitancy in changing our view of what constitutes a college experience. In the future — indeed, even now — institutions will not be collections of buildings, but a combination of those fixed assets along with innovative people using technology to meet students where they are, delivering relevant and affordable educational opportunities. Efficiencies are obvious: It takes the same number of faculty to deliver the same degree program online to 10 times the number of face-to-face students.

Instead of constructing unnecessary buildings at locations around our state, devote more intellectual and financial resources to developing new models for offering degree programs. Perhaps blended programs mixing face-to-face with online delivery make the most sense moving forward for many degree programs, as WSU is developing in Everett.

Additional teaching facilities not geared toward distance delivery or scalability are simply untenable investments. A 50-person classroom will always seat 50 students. A building geared toward continuous innovation with regard to digital delivery of content has virtually unlimited student reach.

Of course, college is not for everyone. Many satisfying and honorable professions can be pursued without higher education. Still, the state owes its citizens the opportunity to complete bachelors’ degrees, enabling them to compete with degree holders from other states.

Washington must increase investment, shed shortsighted provincial views and embrace the future of higher education. Otherwise, native Washingtonians will not have opportunity to truly share in the business successes of our state.

Eric Spangenberg, originally from Kelso, is leaving as dean of The Carson College at Washington State University to become dean of The Merage School at University of California Irvine.

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