Policy and Leadership Vacuum Undermines Higher Education in Washington State, Penn GSE Researchers Find

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Media Contact:Jill DiSanto | jdisanto@upenn.edu | 215-898-4820January 5, 2012

PHILADELPHIA — Washington State’s higher education system is adrift, failing to grant bachelor’s degrees to enough Washingtonians and forcing the state’s high-tech economy to rely on talent imported from other states and countries, according to a study from researchers at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

Joni Finney and Laura Perna from Penn’s Institute for Research on Higher Education have found a lack of statewide leadership, failed efforts to restructure higher education governance, skyrocketing tuition during an economic downturn, a budget crisis that has the potential to undermine the state’s ability to meet its need-based financial aid commitments and a disjointed higher education system, among other findings in “State Policy Leadership Vacuum: Performance and Policy in Washington Higher Education.”

 “When it comes to higher education, what Washington needs from its policymakers is a set of clear goals and an ambitious agenda to help more citizens get the college degrees required to compete for jobs in the state’s high-tech economy,” Finney said. “What it’s getting instead is an abdication of leadership and steep tuition increases that threaten to end the dream of a college education for thousands of Washingtonians.”

In the second installment of a five-state, two-year study, the researchers determined that Washington lags behind most other states in the total number of bachelor’s degrees produced per capita. Only 40 percent of students who start ninth grade enter college on time.  In addition, one-third of adults ages 18-64 have earned only a high school diploma while one-fourth of adults ages 18-64 range have not earned even a high school diploma.

“Washington: State Policy Leadership Vacuum” reports that college is becoming less affordable in Washington.  From 1999 to 2009, median family incomes declined by 1.9 percent, but tuition increased by 42 percent at public two-year colleges and by 39.5 percent at public four-year colleges and universities.

The study found that high-profile planning efforts to reform higher education have produced few tangible results.  For instance, Washington Learns called for a statewide tuition policy, better accountability and expanded opportunities for Washington residents to attend college, but none of this occurred.  In the same vein, the Strategic Master Plan for Higher Education in Washington has also fallen short of expectations.

“Gov. Chris Gregoire has tried to restructure higher education governance with little success,” Finney said.  “A major reorganization mandated by the Legislature for 2012 – eliminating the Higher Education Coordinating Board and replacing it with two agencies – is unlikely to solve the problem of a fragmented higher 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.”

The report identifies the misalignment between high school graduation requirements and college admission requirements, and a lack of statewide higher education priorities.

In addition, compared to other groups, Washington’s Hispanic population, now at 10 percent and expected to grow rapidly, has lower high school graduation rates, lower scores on standardized tests and lower rates of college participation and completion.  African-American residents in Washington also face persisting lower achievement.

“By 2018, 67 percent of all jobs in Washington will require workers who have at least some post-secondary education or training.  But, Washington isn’t doing nearly enough to make sure that its own citizens can compete for such jobs,” Perna said. “Based on trends in degree production and population growth projections, Washington must increase its annual production of associate and bachelor’s degrees by 6.2 percent each year in order for 55 percent of its workforce, ages 25-64, to hold at least an associate degree by 2020.”

Other states in the study are Illinois, Georgia, Maryland and Texas.    

The full report is available at www.gse.upenn.edu/irhe/srp/washington.

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