Looking for a good investment? We’d all be smart to put money into higher ed

The United States’ higher-education system is vitally important at the micro and macro economic level.
The United States’ higher-education system is vitally important at the micro and macro economic level. AP

With Labor Day out of the way, the nation’s colleges and universities can get down to their core mission: Raising money.

No, wait, that’s not it. It’s the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom and perspective, and free and open academic inquiry (at least on campuses where that sort of thing is still permitted.)

Or, less prosaically, it’s about preparing students for careers in occupational fields that are likely to be around for five years and will pay enough to keep graduates out of perpetual debt.

All right, it’s to build a university the football team can be proud of (to borrow a quote from a University of Oklahoma president).

It’s easy to get cynical and dismissive about the state of American higher education, what with the eye-popping tuition price tags, the ballooning debt loads, the influence of big-time sports (and yes, this is coming from a sports fan and a graduate of one of the nation’s premier collegiate athletic emporiums) and the various outbursts of protests over slights (real and imagined) and the presence of contrary opinions.

That would be a mistake, because the U.S. higher-ed system is vitally important at the micro and macro economic level.

For individuals, college educations are a huge influence in upward economic mobility.

For the economic system as a whole, the higher-ed system is one of the biggest competitive advantages the United States has, in providing trained workers and in generating research and ideas that lead to new jobs, new companies, new industries and new technologies.

Thus the condition of American higher ed matters a great deal to the economic and societal status of this country. And frankly, that condition has been better.

Colleges – public and private (we’re leaving aside the realm of for-profit schools, a whole ‘nother realm) — continue to feel financial squeezes, with some of the most pressured forced to close or merge with other institutions.

Even those in comparatively good shape are having to adjust. Pacific Lutheran University recently detailed the measures it’s taking, including cutting faculty positions and dropping or de-emphasizing some academic programs, to keep the budget balanced, as reported in a recent News Tribune story.

Those financial pressures are more than just cycles, such as demographic fluctuations in the population of college-age students; they reflect long-term, even permanent changes.

Faced with sizable and growing bills for college, students are rethinking not just fields of study but the notion of four-year degree programs that don’t lead to remunerative employment.

What can colleges do?

Some have endowments to fall back on, but those resources don’t last forever. Raising tuition has a spiraling effect of discouraging some students from applying, thus cutting revenue.

Public institutions have seen support cut by legislators, not because they don’t like higher ed but because they’ve got other budget demands to meet, including (in this and most other states) K-12 education.

Compounding the problem is that higher ed has not been the most nimble of institutions in adapting to change. Your parents’ and grandparents’ college education, in terms of structure and delivery, wasn’t that much different than yours today.

But change has been occurring, as denoted by two anniversaries marked in 2017. Western Governors University, in which Washington is a participant, is marking its 20th year as a pioneer in online education.

Meanwhile, this is the 50th anniversary of the creation of a unified state community-college system in Washington; what were then known as junior colleges were part of local school districts. The state now has 34 community and technical colleges with 381,000 students.

The community colleges have been the most dynamic at experimentation and innovation. They’ve added certification programs to get students into jobs faster than going through a full four or two-year program.

But they’ve also been moving into four-year programs (many have dropped the word “community,” which implies only two-year associate degrees are available, from their names.) Pierce College for example, has added three bachelor’s degree programs, in teaching, dental hygienist and homeland security emergency management.

The four-year colleges and grad-level universities will be compelled to follow.

Some are getting the message. Purdue University, a public school in Indiana well known for the strength of its engineering school, took the audacious step of buying the for-profit Kaplan University, deciding it wanted to bolster online and adult-education programs and the best way to do that was to buy rather than build.

That touched off considerable sputtering in academic circles of “but, but, that sort of thing just isn’t done.”

Maybe it should be. Not that there’s much at stake if American higher ed isn’t itself doing some learning — just the future of students as individuals and the American economy as a whole, not to mention the survival of the schools.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at