Saving state universities requires a key ingredient

The UW's regents have faced reality. Businesses and the media know the problem but are they willing to support taxes?
A scene from the University of Washington campus

A scene from the University of Washington campus Allie Holzman/Flickr

The debate over the state’s education funding dilemma took a hopeful and perhaps decisive turn last week when the University of Washington Board of Regents weighed in on the need for revenue reform.

In passing the “Declaration of Concern for the Sustainability of Washington Public Higher Education,” the regents made it clear that nothing short of fundamental changes in the state’s financing system will suffice. According to their statement, this will require “reform of the state’s financial and revenue structures so as to provide a viable, dedicated stream of support for access to an affordable, quality public higher education for Washington’s residents.”

Note they didn’t say that more money for higher education should be found by cutting other state programs and services. Nor did they say that any and all growth in state revenue from economic recovery should be directed at higher education.

Thus they are out ahead of the leading candidates for governor, Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna, who have been reticent about suggesting that the state’s tax system is in need of reform. Both have called for finding revenue through efficiencies in other areas of state government. And both are clearly betting on the growth of tax revenue to provide increased funding for higher education.

The regents may have taken their cue from Gov. Chris Gregoire who has been emphatic that further cuts to social programs will not be possible and that there is a crucial need for new revenue. All of the current regents have been appointed or reappointed by Gregoire. And all, with the exception of the student body’s representative, have ties to major state businesses, including Alaska Airlines, Boeing, Microsoft, REI, and Starbucks.

They may have also followed the state Supreme Court’s lead in the McCleary decision when it called in January for the Legislature to amply fund basic education by means of “dependable and regular tax sources.”

In their declaration, the regents “call upon the civic and political leaders of this state, as well as the public at large, to work in common to shape the change that is necessary to protect and nurture the realization of a well-educated and capable American populace.”

Their “Plan of Action” indicates that they will advocate for the reform they seek.

One starting point would be to convince the state’s leading business organizations to change their tune on fiscal reform. To move beyond sloganeering to actual tax reform that provides needed revenue.

The Washington Roundtable, which represents the major state businesses in the public policy arena, has started a public information campaign focusing on “Benchmarks for a Better Washington." One of the benchmarks that it wants to improve upon is that Washington ranks 38th among the states in the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded per capita.

In newspaper advertising and other efforts, the Roundtable wants the public to know that “Washington can do better.” But nowhere does the Roundtable indicate how “better” — in this case, more access to postsecondary education — can be accomplished. It can’t happen without the funds to hire and pay adequate salaries to more professors and their teaching assistants.

Then there is the Association of Washington Business, which advertises itself as the state’s Chamber of Commerce. The AWB’s 2012 legislative agenda (Tax & Fiscal Policy) would preserve the supermajority vote requirement for increasing taxes (and closing loopholes) enacted by initiative to the voters and place it in the state constitution, making tax reform more difficult.

The regents might also want to have a heart-to-heart with The Seattle Times' editorial board. For months in editorials and large-type advertisements The Times has promoted the “Greater Good Campaign” focused on preserving higher education. Recently its ads have been patting the corporate sponsors of the campaign on the back for stepping up to “save higher education.”


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Jun 11, 4:36 a.m. Inappropriate

K-12
pre-school to graduate school
cradle to grave
We need more money!

BlueLight

Posted Mon, Jun 11, 7:43 a.m. Inappropriate

Get rid of all dead weight in academia; abolish tenure, make academia pay a far greater fair share of their health insurance and pension costs, and get rid of all the non-teachers and 'researchers' and bureaucrats that hang on to ivory tower perks for life!

animalal

Posted Mon, Jun 11, 10:44 a.m. Inappropriate

Repeal all Eyeman initiatives (export Eyeman to Texas); implement Gates Sr.'s tax on those making over $250K, better yet, create a state income tax.

Posted Mon, Jun 11, 10:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Good luck with an income tax. Last time around, it lost in every single county in the state, including King. I guess you "progressives" have a hard time getting the message?

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jun 12, 11:05 a.m. Inappropriate

We don't need no stinkin' researchers. they start doing research, the next thing you know they discover new things and that's really dangerous and scary! Especially to people who are scared to learn anything new.

Steve E.

Posted Tue, Jun 12, 11:11 a.m. Inappropriate

And BlueLight has it exactly right. The idea that people should keep learning once they've mastered the basics is ridiculous. Once you can walk, talk, and hit send on a computer there is nothing of importance left to learn about yourself or the world. Its only those socialist commies, like in Canada or China or one of them other furrin places whatever they're called where people talk and think funny that are into edication.

Steve E.

Posted Tue, Jun 12, 5:17 p.m. Inappropriate

Very good, Steve. And I agree. Since there's so much money sloshing around, it shouldn't be a problem to levy sales tax on tuition, just like everything else. Tack it onto the student loan balance. The pit has no bottom.

Of course, if you took one a-them economics classes, you might have learned about elasticity. At the point when the pit is no longer bottomless, the tax will not be passable to the loan balance, and instead will come out of the university's profits. But wait, you say, there are no profits!

Ah, I answer, there is profit and then there is profit. You see, the pit will become non-bottomless everywhere all at once. And that will make it possible, and indeed necessary, to ask whether we really have to pay those professors a quarter-million a year. It might even cause people to ask whether those 100-level courses could be taught online.

See "Western Governor's University" for more information. Just imagine: A cheaper way to deliver the service. Wow! Dang those economics classes!

NotFan

Posted Wed, Jun 13, 10:46 a.m. Inappropriate

WGU Washington Chancellor Jean Floten spoke at the most recent Spring Luncheon of the Puget Sound Association of Phi Beta Kappa, on whose board I sit. You can read a summary of her remarks at http://www.psa-pbk.org/jean-floten-speech.html.

I think the likes of WGU are a good thing, on balance. That having been said, they are not for everyone, and they are certainly not for every field of study.

"WGU’s educational model is competency-based and highly personalized," she writes. "Students learn at their own pace with case studies, simulations, and course content that are directly relevant and immediately applicable to the field for which the student is preparing."

That's fine for the sorts of degrees WGU is offering (full list at http://washington.wgu.edu/degrees_and_programs). But, again, it's no replacement for what the UW offers (http://www.washington.edu/students/gencat/degree_programsTOC.html).

If outfits like WGU can take those students out of places like the UW who would truly be better served by the online environment, thereby reducing pressure on the UW to be everything to everyone, this could be the proverbial win-win solution.

Whatever the ultimate solution is, though, there's no question that the current system is broken.

Posted Wed, Jun 13, 12:45 p.m. Inappropriate

The higher education establishment is even less prepared for what's coming to them than the housing industry was. As a proportion of the education business, the student loan bubble is just as big as the mortgage bubble was.

But at least the developers, as a group, were familiar with bankruptcy. A lot of them knew how to do the dance. But just wait! When the student loan bubble pops, we're going to see some amazing stuff.

Part of the U.S. higher ed system will sell itself to foreigners. That process is already underway. The "University of Washington" will became the functional "University of Eastern China." It will have to, in order to pay the bills. Those "out of state students" they're always talking about? A lot of them are foreign students, and soon just about all of them will be.

A lot of other schools -- the vast majority of them, in fact -- will not be so lucky. You are going to see all kinds of colleges, including some very surprising names, go belly up. As it happens, "higher ed" is going to change in a big way; it will become much more vocational in nature, and much more on-line.

The legislature has no business trying to prop up UW. It should be privatized, with the UW repaying the state for its equity share and paying taxes like any other business. State funding should be redirected toward the new model that WGU represents. I don't have any illusions about this actually happening right now; not only is government in general and this state's government in particular backward looking and reactive, but the higher-ed lobby is very rich and has the whole American Dream shtick down to a science to a degree that homebuilders and car companies can only dream of.

Everyone will wait until the disaster smacks them right in the face before doing what they should have done. The four-year residential collegiate model is quite literally bankrupt. It's a dead man walking, waiting only for some event, i.e., the equivalent of the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy in the spring of 2008, to get to the ball rolling.

Then, and only then, will people face the music. Not because they want to, but because the money simply will not be there any more. I remember having this conversation with investors in the early part of the last decade about the real estate bubble, and being patronized and dismissed like crazy. No one ever wants to believe it can happen to them.

Put it this way: If I was a college professor right now, I'd be salting away as much cash as I could. The gravy train is headed straight for the cliff. It won't be long now.

NotFan

Posted Tue, Jun 12, 1:18 p.m. Inappropriate

Here's an idea: Charge sales tax on university tuition.

NotFan

Posted Thu, Jun 14, 11:39 a.m. Inappropriate

I can't seem to reply to your 12:45 p.m. posting (perhaps there's a limit to the level of nesting in comment threads here), so am posting my reply here.

Yes, you're right, there's no way higher education can continue along its current path. "It will become much more vocational in nature, and much more on-line," you write. That's fine, as long as we don't think all we need in this country is vocational training and STEM education. How can we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Posted Thu, Jun 14, 4:27 p.m. Inappropriate

Pretty soon, the higher-ed establishment will face a moment of truth: Does it want to preserve the form, or the content? "Going away to college" will largely vanish. The hallowed halls of academe will become largely virtual. Just like this dialogue we're having, they will exist on computer servers, to be tapped into via the telecommunications network.

The Internet, by which I mean the wide-area networking of computers via the telecom infrastructure, is rapidly devouring the physical forms of all sorts of businesses. Amazon.com has put most bookstores out of business. Craigslist and EBay are killing what was left of the newspapers. Finance, insurance, and real estate are going virtual.

Now it's higher-ed's turn in the barrel. Liberal arts don't depend on ivy-covered campus buildings. They can be delivered over the wires like anything else. The collegiate world is going to be grabbed by the ankles and shaken hard.

NotFan

Posted Fri, Jun 15, 10:35 a.m. Inappropriate

I think you may be underestimating the benefits of in-person discussion.

Posted Fri, Jun 15, 3:39 p.m. Inappropriate

I think you may be underestimating the benefits of in-person discussion.

Maybe so, but benefit is only part of the equation. The other is affordability.

NotFan

Posted Sat, Jun 16, 10:19 p.m. Inappropriate

Would you be willing to be treated by a doctor with only an on-line education? How about hiring a lawyer who hasn't had the experience of actual argument (in a legal sense, not a Crosscut comment sense) in a classroom? Then there's just about every variety of basic science and physical science. These are not virtual courses; they all require in-person experiential education.

sarah90

Posted Wed, Jun 13, 2:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Privatize all levels of public education!?

animalal

Posted Thu, Jun 14, 9:44 a.m. Inappropriate

There is still no better investment than a 4-year public college. The unemployment rates for graduates are well below those of the general public.

This simply means that those who can afford to pay...should pay...and not force some minimum wage worker in Covington, suffering under a 10% sales tax, to fund the college education of some guy's son in Ballard.

jabailo

Posted Thu, Jun 14, 4:28 p.m. Inappropriate

There is still no better investment than a 4-year public college.

Yes, and make sure to get the biggest mortgage the bank will give you. Your home is an investment, and prices will go nowhere but up. Oh, and did you know that whatever happened in the past will always happen in the future, because nothing ever changes?

NotFan

Posted Mon, Jun 18, 3:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Contrary to some of the rhetoric above.

Industry is courting grads of 4 yr colleges. Makes sense to invest in our states youth, expand tax base and fund higher ed, so that these businesses can source labor, skill and excellence locally rather than from other states or over seas.

Source http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/nationworld/2018404237_skilledstudents11.html

Northern

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