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Originally published Monday, January 9, 2012 at 7:35 PM

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Higher-ed woes tied to state 'leadership vacuum'

A new report by national education experts says Washington politicians have abdicated their leadership role in higher education, leaving the state with a disjointed system that doesn't produce enough bachelor's degrees and forces employers to go out of state to find skilled workers.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

Higher educationin Washington

Graduating from high school: One-fourth of adults have not earned a diploma. By one measure, the state's high-school graduation rate was 16th lowest in the nation.

Going to college: Washington lags behind most other states in the total number of bachelor's degrees produced per capita — only 40 of every 100 students who start ninth grade enter college on time. Hispanic students are a particular concern; they make up 10 percent of the population but have lower graduation rates, lower scores on standardized tests and attend college at a much lower rate.

Paying for a degree: Tuition is skyrocketing at the same time that family income is declining. From 1999 to 2009, the median family income declined in constant dollars by 1.9 percent. At the same time, tuition increased in constant dollars by 42.4 percent at public two-year colleges and 39.5 percent at public four-year colleges and universities.

The full report: www.gse.upenn.edu/irhe/srp/washington

Source: "State Policy Leadership Vacuum: Performance and Policy in Washington Higher Education"

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Washington politicians have abdicated their leadership role in higher education, leaving the state with a disjointed system that doesn't produce enough bachelor's degrees and forces employers to go out of state — and even out of the country — to find skilled workers.

That's the conclusion of a report from the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, which noted that only 40 of every 100 Washington students who start ninth grade will enter college on time. The authors say state leaders should set "clear goals and an ambitious agenda" to increase the number of students earning bachelor's degrees.

Much of the report's conclusions are not news to state policy leaders, who have been concerned for some time about the weak output of college degrees, especially in high-demand fields such as computer science and engineering. But this report puts the blame largely on state leadership — especially Gov. Chris Gregoire, but also state legislators — for what the authors call a "policy leadership vacuum."

The report by Joni Finney and Laura Perna, from Penn's Institute for Higher Education Research, and Patrick Callan, of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, is being released around the same time that a committee led by Gregoire has recommended creating a new state higher-education agency to coordinate between K-12 and postsecondary education.

"It's a very useful, powerful analysis that arrives at exactly the right time," said state Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee and was a member of Gregoire's committee.

The new agency, the Office of Student Achievement, would replace the Higher Education Coordinating Board, which was abolished last year by the Legislature and will end its work July 1.

Seaquist said many legislators were frustrated that the Higher Education Coordinating Board had talent but no power. The new office would play "a formal role every step of the way, not just sitting on the sidelines mailing us good ideas," he said.

Other state education experts said the Penn researchers did a good job of analyzing the state's higher-education woes, but didn't pay enough attention to how devastating deep budget cutbacks have been.

The researchers mistakenly believe "a fundamental fiscal problem can be solved by rearranging governance deck chairs," said Bill Lyne, an English professor at Western Washington University (WWU) and president of the United Faculty of Washington State.

The Penn researchers say Washington policymakers know where the state's weaknesses lie — they've been documented in several state studies — but have lacked the political will to make changes.

Finney and Perna said state leaders interviewed for the report gave Gregoire mixed reviews, criticizing her "for failing to influence the Legislature and deferring to institutional agendas rather than broader public needs for higher education."

Leslie Goldstein, a public-policy analyst for Gregoire, said she couldn't speak to the report's criticisms because the authors didn't say what the governor should have done differently. But Goldstein said the new student-achievement office aims to solve some of the issues mentioned in the report — in particular, a focus on getting high-school graduates to transition into college.

The Penn researchers say that by 2018, 67 percent of all jobs in Washington will require workers who have at least some postsecondary education or training, and the state needs to increase its annual production of associate and bachelor's degrees by 6.2 percent each year to meet that goal. A governor's task force on higher education made the same point a year ago.

Seaquist, the higher-ed committee chairman, described the state as "undereducated" and called for "a radical and rapid increase in total education productivity."

He said he wanted to see the state spend more on higher education, but "clearly in the next eight to 10 years, there's not going to be mountains of money to do that." Instead, state colleges and universities need to be "radically more innovative, very rapidly," to find ways to serve more students, he said.

In the report, the Penn researchers also describe the state as having "a fragmented education system in which various sectors and institutions fail to speak with one voice and are sometimes at odds with one another on policy questions."

"It's been every man for himself here for a long time," agreed William Zumeta, a professor in the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs. Zumeta and Finney, the Penn researcher, are two of four authors of a forthcoming book, "Financing Higher Education," due out next month.

Zumeta said Washington's higher-education system is one of the most decentralized in the country, with many decisions taking place at the institutions rather than at the state level. The four-year schools individually lobby the Legislature for funding, and last year they also received authority to set their tuition.

Still, he noted Washington's four-year schools have high graduation rates compared with their peers in other states, and costs still are relatively low, meaning the system is fairly efficient.

Earl Hale, a member of the Higher Education Coordinating Board and former head of the Board of Community and Technical Colleges, said the state needs to tie together its budget and higher-education policy issues, and view them as a whole. "Connecting the dots is what hasn't gone on," he said.

For example, because tuition is skyrocketing, more students are trying to save money by completing their first two years in community college, Hale said. But the state's four-year schools have a disincentive to accept transfer students because junior- and senior-year classes are more expensive to teach — often smaller in size and far more specialized, he said.

The state should look at policies that help students start their degrees at community colleges without penalizing four-year schools for accepting transfers, he said.

Hale said he agrees with most of the report's conclusions but believes the authors were too hard on Gregoire and understated the effect of the economy on state higher education.

"It's been a tough four or five years, and she did not have the resources of six to eight years ago when [former Gov. Gary] Locke was in office," he said. "That's why I would moderate that criticism."

Zumeta, of the Evans School, and Lyne, the WWU English professor, agreed.

"I'm not sure they completely grasp how hard-hit this state was" by the recession, Zumeta said. "I don't think you can govern your way out of a shortfall of resources."

Lyne said the report "takes declining funding for granted, but then imagines that adopting a few 'reforms' from a PowerPoint will keep everything OK," he said.

He said declining state support for public education and rising tuition mean "we're privatizing public education, which means that regular people will have less and less access to the high-quality, four-year university education that rich kids take for granted. Unless state funding comes back, all the studies in the world aren't going to change that."

Perna said the Penn researchers picked five states — Washington, Illinois, Maryland, Texas and Georgia — that are nationally important because of their size and demographic trends. The university is doing in-depth reports on the policy decisions behind each state's college-completion numbers. Together, the case studies are expected to provide a better understanding of the nation's higher-education problems, she said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219

or klong@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @katherinelong.

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