As a Seattleite, a graduate of Seattle Public Schools and now leader of Washington State University’s Everett campus, I have a front-row seat to one of the most pressing problems in our state: Not enough native Washingtonians go on to complete a college degree, thus shutting them out of our knowledge-based economy.

Washington enjoys a prosperous economy based on innovation. Ranking near the top in the nation as a quintessential state for knowledge workers, nearly 70% of the new jobs in Washington will require education beyond high school, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council. Similarly, Washington ranks fourth in the nation for states that have adopted a focus on knowledge-centered jobs and new business startups.

My professional success is directly tied to the types of experiences and opportunities I had for growth and development. All students in Washington should have these opportunities. But the sad reality is that too many high school students in our state don’t go on to community college or university. Of those who do, too many leave before getting a degree.

The pandemic is making the problem worse. New data shows first-time, first-year enrollment in Washington’s public four-year universities fell an average of 12.6% this fall compared with fall 2019.

The result is a state dependent on other states to educate the innovators, leaders and professionals we rely on to keep Washington’s competitive edge sharp. Why is the state known for aerospace, technology, biomedical research and space exploration not also known for creating the best talent? Why are we a net importer of talent for highly paid, skilled jobs while ignoring the young people growing up here? We must respond to these questions by focusing on access.

True access goes beyond a college application. Many students don’t have access to the type of self-knowledge that tells them they’re capable of realizing their dreams through education beyond high school. Others don’t have access to knowledge and support systems that will set them on a path to help them achieve their dreams. Still others hear the constant message that college is not for everyone and that it is overrated, even though data continues to show the college degree proves its value in yearly and lifetime earning potential.

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For my brothers and I, it was never a question whether we would go on to some kind of post-high school education. It was an expectation of my parents, both of whom had degrees. Many of my friends and classmates were both talented and driven but did not have the same level of knowledge of the value of postsecondary education that was instilled in me by my parents. That is what compelled me to begin to work in higher education as a recruiter.

After I received my undergraduate degree, I worked as a minority student recruiter for the University of Washington. Traveling around the state talking to young people about realizing their dreams through education gave me an even greater sense of the power of postsecondary education. It helped me decide to get my master’s and doctoral degrees and focus my research and scholarship on college access and choice.

It was no accident that my career took me to Washington State University. As a land-grant institution, student access and advocacy are in our DNA. More than a third of undergraduates at WSU are the first in their family to attend college. At the campus I lead, WSU Everett, just under 43% of our students this fall are first-gen. Most of those students are from Washington.

Helping these students succeed pays dividends for the state in many ways. Washington businesses want to hire Washington students. Having a large and well-educated workforce boosts competitiveness and builds our economic prosperity. It adds to the civic and cultural fabric of our communities.

Washington state must do more to cultivate homegrown talent. We must be honest with our students that their best path to future success goes through postsecondary education. And yes, as a state we must make the decision that our colleges and universities are important suppliers of talent and innovation and continue to invest in them as a business would invest in its infrastructure.  

We must finally become the accessible, equitable Washington state that we have long envisioned being.