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Originally published November 20, 2013 at 6:54 PM | Page modified November 21, 2013 at 2:36 PM

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Higher-ed report sets goals, lacks plan, critics say

A new state council has come up with a road map for the future of higher education in Washington. But some critics say it’s not specific enough.


Seattle Times higher-education reporter

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Keep college affordable and don’t let high tuition rates prevent low-income students from attending — those are two of the top recommendations from a new state policy group’s plan for the future of higher education in Washington.

But the report is short on details for how to accomplish those goals, and some critics say they’re disappointed with it.

The 10-year road map, written and approved by the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC), now goes to the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee.

State Rep. Gerry Pollet, a critic, said the plan doesn’t say how to add more space in Western Washington’s high-demand schools and programs, and doesn’t define what an affordable education should cost.

“There was no thinking about big-picture questions,” said Pollet, D-Seattle, who is vice-chair of the House Higher Education Committee.

State Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, faulted the report for being short on specifics. “I think it’s not as definitive as it needs to be at this point,” said Bailey, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee.

The council replaced the Higher Education Coordinating Board last year; its main job is to increase educational attainment in Washington — especially the state’s low college-going rate.

Members of the council say their recommendations are a first step in a 10-year process, meant to set broad, overarching goals. The details, they say, will follow.

“I think it’s a very bold plan,” said Maud Daudon, who chaired the council and is president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce. “The tactical action plan will be coming.”

Executive director Gene Sharratt said the council would have specific proposals on stable funding sources in about a year, and the plan would evolve as time went on.

Inslee stirred up controversy in April when he replaced half the Washington Student Achievement Council members — including its chairman, former U.S. Rep. Brian Baird — with picks of his own. Daudon, who was a member of Inslee’s transition team, replaced Baird.

Although adults in the state are generally well-educated, students who graduate from Washington high schools go on to college at one of the lowest rates in the country — by one measure, the state ranks 46th among the 50 states.

The report calls for all Washington adults to have a high-school diploma or the equivalent by 2023, and for at least 70 percent of Washington adults to have a college degree or other postsecondary credential by then.

Today, 89 percent have a high-school diploma or equivalent, and 50 percent have a postsecondary credential — a certificate, apprenticeship or college degree.

Daudon said one of the state’s most vexing issues — providing a stable funding source for higher education — required “more attention and focus than we had time for.”

Higher-education funding has been vulnerable to the vagaries of state revenue collections. During the last economic downturn, legislators cut higher education particularly hard, leading to double-digit tuition increases at two- and four-year schools.

Daudon said not all fixes require money.

For example, the new Common Core state standards and new assessment tools should help prepare high-school students for college-level math and writing, so fewer students are assigned to remedial classes.

The report by the Washington Student Achievement Council makes 12 recommendations, including a $16 million funding request for the State Need Grant, the state’s primary grant program for low-income students, and $12 million request for College Bound, a program that pays college tuition for low-income students who sign up in middle school, keep a C average and stay out of legal trouble.

Karen Strickland, executive director of the American Federation of Teachers — a union that represents faculty at community and regional colleges — faulted the report for not being more realistic about funding problems.

For example, the report discusses the need for better training for counselors and advisers. But it doesn’t address budget cuts that have depleted their numbers. Without enough counselors to go around, training is secondary, Strickland said.

“They’ve done a lot of work,” Pollet said. “But I think they’ve done more work in the traditional areas — where they are comfortable with developing policy — than the very big-picture question of how do we provide affordable access across the state, and for every population in the state.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @katherinelong.



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