“A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” says the famous slogan of the United Negro College Fund. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” says Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
So what do we do with a crisis about minds—specifically, the minds that pass through Washington’s higher-education system? Saying that higher ed in general and Washington’s system in particular are in crisis might strike some as a little overheated. So these schools have money problems? These days, who doesn’t?
And when it comes to the debate over American economic status, one of the few points upon which you can get near unanimity is that this nation’s colleges and universities remain a competitive, comparative and strategic advantage.
It’s true at the state level as well. That we have any sort of presence in the biotech and medical-device industries can be attributed to the research dollars poured into the University of Washington over the years, and to the technology and entrepreneurs those dollars have produced. Thus, it matters a great deal whether academia is healthy and improving, listless and treading water or, worst of all, in decline.
More and more, people worry that American higher ed has checked the second or even the third box. Among the ills people fret about:
• The affordability of and access to higher education
• Whether students are adequately prepared to enter college
• Whether many of them are doing much more than drifting and drinking while in college
• Whether they’re adequately prepared for work once they graduate (not to mention whether there will be any jobs waiting for them if they do graduate)
• Whether colleges can handle the dual tasks of research and undergraduate instruction
For years, Washington’s strategy on higher ed has been “more.” As in more colleges and branch campuses, and more facilities and programs at the institutions we have. The University of Washington now operates two branches, in Tacoma and Bothell. Washington State University has three, not counting its agricultural research stations, extension offices and small-business development centers. It wasn’t long ago that Washington was seriously debating where in Snohomish County to locate a publicly funded polytechnic college.
More, when it came to higher-ed spending, was easy to justify. A college degree was a way to move citizens up the economic ladder; the spinoffs of college research could do the same for communities and the state. Dollars doled out for new campuses and facilities were pork barrel plums that made life more pleasant for politicians.
But more is something the state can no longer afford. Simply keeping what we have may be beyond our fiscal reach. That possibility sets up some interesting debates on two commodities higher ed has considerable experience tussling over: money and turf.
This problem isn’t just about dollars. There’s a growing realization that some students don’t belong or don’t need to be in a four-year school, and that employers will have an abundance of good jobs for which skills and training, but not necessarily college degrees, are necessary.
Such change would suggest that the heavy lifting in preparing tomorrow’s workforce will increasingly be performed by Washington’s system of community and technical colleges—a fact not lost on those institutions. They’re moving into four-year programs and degrees (Bellevue College, for example, has dropped the “Community” from its name), adding specialized centers for training in such jobs-of-tomorrow fields as advanced materials and alternative energy, and are energetically elbowing for money and position. No longer will they be content to exist as feeder schools for the four-year institutions.
Which leaves those traditional colleges where, exactly? Do they hand over more of the job of undergraduate instruction to the community/voc-tech schools and focus on advanced instruction and research? Try to grab back some of the money and territory they’ve lost? Do something different?
Washington is going to have to confront those uncomfortable questions, because higher ed’s money problems are not going to go away even if the state’s budget squeeze eases. A crisis might seem an inopportune time to figure out the structure, role and purpose of the state’s higher-ed system, but since the crisis seems to be enduring, so is the opportunity—provided it doesn’t go to waste.