Opinion

Higher ed.: Changing students, new economy - Island forum

By Rep. Fred Jarrett

Washington's system of higher education is at a crossroads. Our changing economy and student needs require the Legislature and the higher education community to rethink how to make higher education more accessible to students and pertinent to the communities.

It's important to recognize that today's students are more diverse than in years past. They are more apt to require access to life-long work-force training in addition to advanced degree programs. Our economy has changed as well, and the business community's needs have shifted to accommodate a new economic climate.

It's time the higher education system and the Legislature change with the rest of the world.

Over the past two years, I've worked with a variety of people interested in higher education discussing how Washington can improve its higher education system. The culmination of those conversations is House Bill 1434.

House Bill 1434 has four guiding principles. Any reforms must be based on a long-term strategic plan for higher education; address both the changing needs of today's students and our economy; make higher education more affordable and accessible for all Washingtonians; and most importantly establish a system of accountability for taxpayers so we can be confident the first three principles will be met.

House Bill 1434 takes into account that the key to success is to have a solid strategy in place. Whether personally or professionally, it's almost always impossible to be successful without a clear vision and plan to reach that vision. HB 1434 recognizes this and articulates a strategic master plan for higher education, including specific targets for student enrollment levels and degree production. The plan is implemented through performance contracts with colleges and universities. The contracts include specific performance commitments from both colleges and universities and the Legislature.

The bill recognizes a trained and skilled work force is critical to fostering a more competitive business environment and that the changing face of today's students must be addressed by creating more educational programs geared toward adult students.

House Bill 1434 would expand the number of high-demand career programs and increase enrollment slots. It should create 3,800 more baccalaureate degrees per year, in part by partnering with regional universities and community and technical colleges.

Beginning in the 2006-2007 school year, higher education would be more accessible. Branch campuses would offer lower division college courses and begin transitioning to full-scale, four-year universities. In addition, community and technical colleges would be able to contract with a regional university or branch campus to offer baccalaureate degrees on the college campus.

The door to the American dream would be opened to more Washington citizens by increasing the availability of financial aid for low- and middle-income families. HB 1434 would improve the state need grant by shifting its purpose to ensuring all Washington residents have equitable higher education opportunities. It expands financial aid to middle-income families helping pay for college and expanding access.

This is a major departure in how the state funds higher education -- instead of simply funding higher education ``slots,'' House Bill 1434 would negotiate a performance contract in exchange for the funding. Shifting to a higher education system based on accountability focused on the needs of students and the economy will ensure the strategic plan is implemented. Outcomes with identifiable benchmarks will be measured along the way. Outcomes, including educational cost and quality, timeliness of student progression, as well as students' ability to move between educational systems will all be measured to ensure taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely.

The future of our state depends on education. The key to our rich and diverse quality of life and our region's work force is in our higher education system. World class higher education will enable our work force to compete in the world economy.

Washington citizens deserve an affordable, high-quality higher education system. This will require the state to increase its investment and improve accountability. House Bill 1434 would get the job done and allow Washington to keep pace in a global economy.

Rep. Fred Jarrett, R-Mercer Island, serves on the House Higher Education Committee in the state Legislature.

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