Should Washington pay schools more for better results?

Guest Opinion: Washington continues to face a crisis in higher education funding. Performance-driven incentives for public universities is one solution.
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A scene from the University of Washington campus

Guest Opinion: Washington continues to face a crisis in higher education funding. Performance-driven incentives for public universities is one solution.

The Great Recession and the ensuing budget crises in Olympia have led to years of compounding cuts in our higher education system. Extensive tuition increases from 2007 to 2011 have hurt middle class students and families as well as those aspiring to move into the middle class through the upward mobility that a college education has historically afforded.

The recent trend of 15- and 20-percent tuition increases has forced many students to dramatically increase their debt loads, which can take decades to pay off. This in addition to those who can’t access higher education at all because of the cost. The lack of state support for higher ed has also hurt the quality of our institutions by increasing class sizes, making it harder for students to finish in four years and forcing top faculty to leave for better-paying institutions.

In 2012, we put a tourniquet on the higher ed bleeding by holding the line on further cuts in state support, but our support for the cost of educating college students now sits at a historically low 35 percent of the total cost of an education. While we may have stopped the bleeding, we must now begin the healing. Our long-term goal should be to return this state to an equal balance of state support and tuition, with 50 percent coming from each, by the year 2020.

To this end, we’ve introduced legislation to get our higher education system back on track. This plan would institute a new and innovative funding model for universities that would build on the broader public policy goals we've already set for our system. The funding bill, now before the Senate Ways and Means committee, would invest about $200 million during this budget cycle and prevent tuition increases for the next two years.

Even as we amp up our public investment in the system, we need to ensure that the additional dollars drive our public universities to produce the educational outcomes we need. For example, nearly every day we hear from the tech sector in our state that they cannot find the knowledge-based employees they need. Two years ago, we passed landmark legislation that requires our institutions to improve on their efforts to produce this type of workforce. It’s time to build on that effort by using additional investments in the coming years to incentivize our universities to pursue these goals even more aggressively.

For this reason, we have introduced the Educational Achievement and Tuition Reduction Incentive Program. This funding model doesn’t punish institutions – it rewards those that excel. You could think of it as a “Race to the Top” for our universities. The incentives for additional funding are based on performance according to metrics such as the number of degrees awarded, time-to-degree completion, STEM degrees and degrees received by members of underserved communities. Importantly, an additional incentive metric will be the degree to which our institutions operate efficiently and keep tuition affordable and stable. We would be the second state in the country to establish an incentive funding model that includes a tuition metric.

Two years ago, we passed reforms that require universities to track and report on these metrics. This proposal would put dollars behind those reforms and let us award additional funding based on how well the schools meet their goals. The program would be monitored and implemented by a task force of experts in the field and the institutions themselves. There is no doubt that we need to increase the amount of money that our state invests in public higher education.  This model makes sure that our new investment in the system will be used as effectively as possible.

Senate Democrats have introduced the proposals described in this article. Senate Republicans are also working on a similar concept. Much has been said about the need for both parties to work together to solve critical problems. Reinvesting in our public higher education system is a goal that virtually all members of the legislature share. This is an area ripe for the parties to work together to move us in a new direction.

Our higher education system is a public good that requires the investment of public dollars. It is hugely important to the development of a vibrant middle class and critical to job creation and economic growth in our region. By holding the line on tuition immediately and instituting a new and effective funding model going forward, we can maintain the affordability and accessibility of higher education and drive toward the educational outcomes we seek.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jeanne Kohl-Welles

King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles represents the 4th Council District.