Western's Public Education Mission

Recently, I was invited to speak with members of the Washington Roundtable, a group that represents major private sector employers in the state.  The Washington Roundtable has articulated a goal, that by 2030, 70% of high school graduates will attain a postsecondary credential by age 26 to serve Washington’s growing economy.  Currently, only 40% of Washington’s high school graduates go on to earn such a credential by age 26.

The funding provided during the last legislative session under House Bill 2158, known as the Workforce Education Investment Act (WEIA), is focused on making meaningful progress toward that attainment goal.  And, because the funding for WEIA came largely from a tax increase on Washington businesses that employ workers with advanced skills who are trained in the higher education system, the WEIA legislation created an oversight board that includes representatives from business to oversee the impact of the investment.

It was against this backdrop that we spent close to two hours discussing how the state’s higher education sector can advance progress towards the 70% attainment goal, and in particular what Western’s share of that would look like.  By the Roundtable’s calculation, in order to do its part, by 2030 Western would have to increase the number of graduates each year to 5,000, and increase our six-year graduation rate to 77%.  I was pleased to inform the Roundtable members that the same kind thinking had been a central pillar in the development of Western’s strategic plan, and that aspirationally their goals were similar to the goals we set for ourselves to achieve by 2025.

I also shared with the Roundtable that Western had recently requested help from the state legislature in transitioning all of Western’s programs on the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas from self-sustaining (where tuition alone funds the program) to state-funded, effectively reducing every student’s tuition by more than $12,000 over two years.  This would not only lower barriers to access for low-income students, it would open the way for significantly increasing enrollments in the most underserved part of the state, and make progress toward the 70% attainment goal.

Of course, setting goals and achieving them are two different things.  That’s why we undertook a “resource modeling” process last year to see what it would actually take to achieve them.  The main goal of the process was to answer two questions:

  1. How much additional money do we need, on a recurring basis, to cover the operations of the university as it currently exists?  (Implicit in this question is the recognition that we are already underfunded in key areas, including the core academic enterprise.)
  2. How much additional money do we need, again on a recurring basis, to actually achieve the strategic plan goals we have set for ourselves? 


The resource modeling process showed that six years out, we will need an additional $20 to $25 million annually to bridge the current “operational gap” and have the resources to advance our strategic plan.  And, that is after building in inflationary increases in state subsidy and resident undergraduate tuition.

Where will we find this additional $20 to $25 million?  Historically, Western has relied on state funding and in-state tuition, both to cover existing operations and pursue new programs or goals.  The resource modeling process and reasonable inference from the past 20-30 years of generally declining state funding for public higher education suggest that while these sources will always be critically important, they won’t be anywhere near adequate on their own to close existing gaps, much less achieve our aspirational goals.

In Washington state, the recent high-water mark for state funding for public higher education occurred in the late 1990s, when the state provided around 70% of Western’s operating budget, and tuition around 30%.  Since then, that ratio has slowly been reversing, until, during the depths of the Great Recession in 2010, it was completely inverted, with the state providing 30% and tuition 70% of our operating budget.  Since then, thanks to the national and regional economic recovery, and the visionary collaboration of legislators and advocates for public higher education, including the private sector, reinvestment has led to a return to a roughly 50/50 balance. 

It is, however, important to note a few things about this reinvestment.  The first is that it has not made public higher education “whole”, or returned it to pre-recession levels of funding, much less the “glory days” of the late 1990s.  Second, the reinvestment has been made possible by the resurgence of a strong economy, and experience indicates that because higher education is among the two largest “discretionary” parts of the state budget, it is disproportionally impacted during periods of recession.  The third thing to note is that these reinvestments have not gone to the core operational functions of our state’s universities, but largely toward making college more affordable for students and to the development of new programs in high demand areas. 

There is no doubt that the Workforce Education Investment Act was a historic investment in public funding for higher education in Washington.  While other states around the country continue to debate whether to provide free college tuition, WEIA has essentially already done it, by expanding state aid grants to cover much or all of tuition for any qualified Washington resident who applies for it.  This year at Western, an additional 275 students will receive the grant (for around 4,500 total grant recipients), and starting next year, every eligible student will receive it.  This is a tremendous victory for public higher education, for the people of Washington, and it is completely aligned with our mission to provide access to high quality higher education, regardless of economic means.  As residents of Washington we should all take pride in the fact that we have one of the most progressive higher education funding policies in the country.

At the same time, making higher education more accessible is really only of value to those incoming students, and to the state, if it is accompanied by similar investments in program capacity and educational quality (i.e., the faculty, staff and resources to deliver it), and the student services necessary to ensure that students succeed and actually graduate.  That is why our strategic plan centers on inclusive student success, each part of which deserves its own emphasis: our goals are to (1) welcome an increasingly diverse student body, (2) to an inclusive learning and living environment, complete with student services that will (3) ensure everyone graduates at the same high rates.  This goal is also central because being successful here will require us to be successful along the other dimensions of our strategic plan, including increasing the number and diversity of tenure track faculty.

Program capacity, educational quality, and student services—not to mention the other operational needs of the university—have not been major beneficiaries of the state’s reinvestment in public higher education, and as I mentioned above, to the extent they have, it has been focused on new programs.  From the WEIA, for example, the most significant investment Western received was $1.7 million per year to increase capacity in high-demand STEM areas like electrical engineering and energy science.  This captures in microcosm much of the state’s reinvestment in public higher education as it has been since 2013.  Make no mistake, we are extremely grateful for the WEIA and will continue to partner with the state to increase funding for higher education, pressing the case that this is one of the most potent ways to serve the public good and expand individual opportunity.  However, knowing very well that revenue constraints and funding for other public priorities will continue to limit investment in post-secondary education, we must also explore other means to achieve our goals.

It should go without saying that the idea of increasing in-state tuition is a non-starter, both because it goes against our commitment to providing affordable education to Washingtonians and because the increase would have to be truly astronomical to fill the gap.  Even so, the economics of in-state tuition do point toward part of a solution uncovered through the resource modeling process, which is to admit more out-of-state students who pay tuition at higher rates.  Contrary to what some might believe, this additional tuition is not “profit”; rather, it effectively subsidizes the attendance of more in-state students by providing the difference between their lower tuition and what it actually costs to educate a student at Western.  And, it provides the means to close our operational gaps and advance our aspirations. 

Of course, these are not the primary reasons why Western is pursuing the recruitment of more out-of-state students, including international students.  When I have spoken about this in the past, I have emphasized Western’s opportunity and responsibility to look beyond our traditional access borders and help provide the means for advancing communities around the globe.  I have drawn attention to the ways in which non-resident students, particularly international students, diversify and enrich the educational environment at Western for all students.  As the future of work and the workplace becomes more globally-connected, our graduates (not to mention our employees) deserve to have more experience living and interacting with people from cultures different from their own. 

Beyond the economic calculus, we need to take a step back and appreciate just how un-diverse Western is in this respect.  At present, our student body consists of 13% non-residents, with international students representing a mere 1% of that.  A relatively modest increase in non-resident students will not result in a major shift in resident-to-non-resident student mix, and it will create more opportunities for Washingtonians, not less.  Nor will it change our Bellingham campus culture except for the better.  Additionally, our efforts on the Peninsulas will enable us to serve more Washingtonians.

Another revenue generating strategy identified by the resource modeling exercise is to explore the development of select non-degree programs, and other forms of need-based professional development.  These kinds of programs are “self-sustaining” in that they rely entirely on the funds they take in from tuition set at market rates, not state dollars or subsidies from the University.  These kinds of programs also fall under the Roundtable’s 70% attainment goal, as many of the future open positions in Washington's economy will require some form post-secondary education other than a two- or four-year degree.  As we conducted the feasibility study for expanding Western’s presence on the Peninsulas, we received great interest from prospective students, employers, and workforce development representatives in the area about increasing access to these kinds of programs in addition to four-year degrees.  

More generally, non-degree programs are anticipated to become an increasingly integral aspect of people’s careers.  As multiple jobs and even careers become commonplace over the course of an individual’s working life, demand will increase for ways to update and develop new skills without having to stop working, move, or devote years to acquiring them.  This will be just as true for Western alumni as for those who have never heard of Western before.  These kinds of programs are not in competition with our four-year undergraduate mission, they are complementary to it, an illustration of what “lifelong learning” in an academic setting will look like.  There is no zero-sum game here, where the undergraduate-focused, public higher education mission has to lose in order to expand what, how, when, and to whom we offer a part of our educational enterprise.  On the contrary, it will enable us to better serve the public, on a broader scale than ever before.

I think we tend to conflate the public mission of our institutions with sources of revenue.  I can assure you that the legislature expects us to leverage state investment with non-state dollars to increase access, educational quality and research.  At the University of Washington, for example, the tuition-to-state subsidy ratio is about 65% to 35%, and state appropriations just under 10% of their FY20 total operating budget (i.e., state appropriations, tuition revenue, and indirect cost recovery).  But that does not reduce UW’s commitment to being a state institution serving public interests, just like Western.

During the great recession, the budget cuts that state institutions received raised the question of whether they were really “public” institutions any longer.  Here too, the thought was that whether or not an institution was “public” depended on where the money was coming from.  And yet, the more circumspect response of the public higher education sector at that time was that we have always been, and always will be public, not because of where the money comes from, but because it is our mission to serve the public.  That mission, and the way in which it is implemented in a strategic plan, are the ends; financial resources are the means to achieve them.  Just as the public mission of the University does not change during lean times, the funding sources to advance and enhance that mission need not compromise it. 

I hope in this rather lengthy essay I have helped make a couple of things clearer:  First, that we are committed to the public education mission of Western and that our partnership with Washington state to advance access and success is absolutely critical.  At the same time, making progress toward the 70% attainment goal, closing our operational gaps, and advancing our strategic plan will require additional resources beyond those projected from state appropriations.  And, as articulated in the strategic plan, those incremental resources are earmarked for advancing our retention and graduation goals through hiring of more tenure-track faculty and expansion of student support services, while developing a supportive institutional culture essential to sustain progress over time. 

If we keep these goals front and center, and are willing to explore new ways to achieve them, I believe we can make Western more inclusive, more equitable, and more impactful in serving the public than ever before.