When we reconstitute our government this fall through the remarkable exercise of American democracy, we will shape the future not only with regard to controversial issues, but also for widely supported, crucial institutions such as higher education.
Few would argue that, beyond its role as a catalyst for achieving a family wage job and a enriched life, higher education is also a fundamental factor in our communities’ economic and social health and vitality. Yet in Washington state, lawmakers often look to higher education when tight economic times require budgetary belt-tightening.
That’s because state funding of higher education is purely optional. By contrast, funding for K-12 schools, debt repayment and human services — including prisons and entitlements — all must be funded by the state, by law. Such mandates account for two-thirds of state spending, leaving just one-third to be divided among higher education and a host of other items. And as higher education is the largest of these discretionary items, it is about the only source of significant “savings.”
I put “savings” in quotes because under-funding higher education is tantamount to slaughtering the golden-egg-bearing goose. Higher education is an exceptionally lucrative investment target for state dollars.
For every state dollar spent on community and technical colleges, taxpayers collect a real-money “book” return of 22 percent. Who would turn down such a low-risk, high-return investment?
Here’s a good example of how that return is generated: After the last big economic downturn many laid-off Boeing engineers entered Bellevue Community College’s Worker Retraining Program, which helped them quickly retool their skills and get back into employment. A large percentage of those students elected to train for health professions such as radiation therapy, radiologic technology, diagnostic ultrasound and nuclear medicine technology, all of which are in high demand.
Far from having to accept jobs with lower pay, these students got jobs that averaged a 25 percent higher salary than their last job. And in a time of falling government revenues, those higher salaries returned more tax dollars to our state and local treasuries.
A more recent and typical example is the case of a local resident I will call Hal — a single father who for years has had to use subsidized childcare, housing and food. Hal had a job as an information systems technician, but he could only get 20 hours of work a week at an upper limit of $16.50 per hour — not enough to support his family.
Then Hal enrolled in BCC’s Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer program to equip himself for a better career. He didn’t qualify for federal financial aid, but our creative and supportive staff eventually found financial assistance for him from other sources. For his part, Hal invested long hours of focused study and extra time in the computer lab.
The payoff came last month when Hal graduated. He was immediately promoted to PC network technician and now works full-time at $22.50 per hour, with excellent prospects for further advancement. His family is better off, but so is the community and the state. No longer on any form of public assistance, Hal has joined the ranks of taxpayers.
Today’s economy is challenging for almost everyone, but especially low age earners. Every day I receive “WARN” notices that alert colleges that local businesses are reducing their work forces. A quick glance at classified ads shows there are still jobs, especially high skills and high wage jobs, precisely in those areas that our colleges prepare students to enter.
The ability of Washington’s community and technical colleges to produce such returns is not guaranteed. Our communities and economy have a lot riding on the way our reconstituted government views higher education. The beauty and the challenge of America is, such decisions are not made for us, but by us.