Education beyond high school has long been an onramp to success in our state and nation. It’s an onramp that needs to be open on fair terms to everyone. But we haven’t yet created the broad access to opportunities after high school that Washington students need to pursue the jobs of the future.
What should we do?
Let’s start by establishing in this year’s state budget a dedicated workforce education investment fund that will create the learning opportunities that our state’s families need and deserve. A new fund can do this in three ways.
First, let’s expand access for all deserving students with more funding for financial aid like the state need grant, guaranteeing this grant is available to all who are eligible. And let’s make it usable for the broader range of 21st century learning opportunities that have become important. Currently, the state need grant can be used at eligible institutions. It’s a broad list but not fully representative of all of the ways students will learn in the future.
Second, let’s expand the state’s learning opportunities in all areas of postsecondary education. Many of today’s students and tomorrow’s workforce will benefit by pursuing career pathways that take them through community and technical colleges or apprenticeships, with counseling support to provide students from all backgrounds the help they need to complete their education and seek a new job.
And third, let’s expand capacity at our public community and technical colleges and our four-year colleges and universities so deserving students can obtain the credentials our employers are requiring. Some of the funds would go toward increasing capacity for high-demand fields. Too many talented local students today encounter disappointment because we lack room in our programs in critical high-demand fields like nursing, engineering and computer science.
How should we do this?
In a word, carefully. Increased public investment makes sense only with controls and oversight that will ensure money is spent effectively. In short, with additional funding we need heightened accountability.
Why do this now?
We must act now when our economy is healthy. We need to structure a dedicated fund that will better ride out and resist budget cuts when, sooner or later, we inevitably confront the next recession.
Recessions are terrible for the state’s budget for learning opportunities beyond high school. One big reason is that many other parts of the budget are protected by effective legal restrictions, while higher education has none. As we learned from the budget cuts and consequent steep tuition hikes at the height of the last recession, the only time we can “recession proof” this part of the budget is before a recession arrives by creating a controlled and dedicated fund for this purpose.
How should we pay for this?
That’s always the hardest question. But we can chart a sensible and reasonable path by learning from the past. Twice since 1993, the state has increased the Business and Occupation (B&O) rate on services, once to 2.5 percent and once to 1.8 percent, to address a funding need. After a few years the rate has returned to 1.5 percent.
We can generate the revenue for a workforce education fund by returning the B&O rate to 1.8 percent, but in two ways different from the past. First, rather than apply this increase to all businesses, confine it to those that most depend on — and will benefit from — hiring these skilled employees. This means firms that provide professional, engineering, technical and other similar services.
And second, let’s ask the largest companies in the tech sector, which are the largest employers of high-skilled talent, to do a bit more. This means that the largest tech companies would pay somewhat more than the 1.8 percent rate.
Let’s use this opportunity to create in our state at least a partial antidote to the current lack of access to new skills and higher education that’s bothering the nation. Let’s build and “recession proof” a workforce education fund that’s open on fair terms to everyone.
Access to a fair deal has always constituted a fundamental ingredient of the American dream. Let’s nurture this dream for all the families of Washington state.