Tucked in the depths of the Legislature’s most recent supplemental budget — surely you’ve waded through all 449 pages of it, haven’t you? — are some appropriations that tell you a lot about trends in higher education in this state now, and what that means for the employers, employees and the economy of tomorrow.
Here’s one item of particular interest locally. The Legislature appropriated $300,000 over two years for continuing study of a new community and technical college in the Graham area. The plan is to continue with classes at Graham-Kapowsin High School and gather data about those who are attending, as well as demand for expanded programs. The results of the feasibility study are due in June 2019.
Western Washington University in Bellingham, meanwhile, got several appropriations for setting up an early-childhood-education degree program at its Western on the Peninsulas campus in conjunction with Olympic College, and to study setting up a four-year-degree-granting campus on the Kitsap or Olympic peninsulas. That report is due at the end of this year.
Then there’s an allocation of $300,000 to Cascadia Community College and the University of Washington-Bothell to work with the local biomedical device cluster to figure out what workforce training programs businesses there will need to keep them there.
There’s more like that in there — Peninsula College, for example, is getting money to expand enrollment in its medical assisting, nursing assistant and registered nursing programs — but there are some larger, broader points to be drawn from the specifics.
One is that politicians, economic-development officials and business leaders are putting a lot of emphasis, not to mention a lot of your money, on the state’s higher-ed infrastructure as core to the prospects for Washington’s economic health and for those who might like a good-paying job.
There’s an easy temptation to get cynical and critical about dolloping out large sums of money for the expansion of higher ed. From the political side, bringing home some shiny new buildings always makes for some lovely groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting photos. That ought not to be a motivation for undertaking such projects, but let’s not kid ourselves, much government spending is based on such reasons.
From the educational side, higher-ed institutions are not immune to empire-building and turf wars, as we’ve seen with so many of the two-year schools morphing into four-year programs (count how many have dropped the word “community” from their name) and with local tussles like medical schools in Spokane.
Then there are the issues of the need for even more debt-burdened college graduates with degrees that will never translate into gainful employment, whether the emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) will set up today’s graduates for tomorrow’s layoffs once automation and artificial intelligence wipe out all those jobs and whether big physical campuses will soon prove to be as antiquated a delivery system for learning as the one-room schoolhouse, what with online programs available.
But even with those considerations, the emphasis on higher-ed spending isn’t misplaced.
The young’uns might not have caught on yet, but the future is shaping up very nicely for them job-wise. Baby boomers continue to exit the workforce, and they won’t all be replaced by robots or AI systems. Someone has to build, program, maintain, operate and fix those robots. As for artificial intelligence, it has yet to prove it won’t be the next over-hyped, under-delivering technology.
Actually, the present is shaping up pretty well, too. Some companies, industries and communities are having to offer sign-on bonuses to attract workers.
But there’s a catch. Prospects are bright for those who have the educational credentials to take on those jobs, and having those credentials means having access, in location and affordability, to the needed training.
That’s a reason why officials are looking at expanding programs to places such as Graham, and why community colleges, with their ability to get students through certificate and degree programs and into jobs faster, will remain critically important in whatever system the state winds up with.
Higher-ed also matters as an economic development tool since the presence of strong programs can be a factor in recruitment and retention of businesses. (If Amazon chooses a college-rich area such as Boston for its new headquarters, then we’ll know that higher-ed was high on its criteria list.)
Taxpayers might gulp at the proliferation of college campuses and programs, especially with everything else they’re asked to pay for these days. Higher ed doesn’t come cheap, and the opportunities for low-return spending abound.
But if they perceive that Graham State University and its equivalents increase the odds of getting Junior off the basement couch and into a good job post graduation, that’s an expenditure they might go along with.