UW Impact

Be engaged: Bipartisan panel addresses role of higher education today

With topics ranging from Trump’s America to undocumented students to the tension between K-12 and higher education, the discussion at UW Impact’s 2017 Legislative Preview: The Role of Higher Education in a Changing Economy on Thursday, January 5, 2017, was a broad examination of the challenges facing higher education today.

UW Impact helps fulfill the UW Alumni Association’s mission of supporting higher education by educating and mobilizing alumni to be productive advocates in Olympia. This event, UW Impact’s 3rd annual legislative preview, gave attendees a sneak peek of the issues at play in the legislative session opening Monday, January 9.

Journalist Joni Balter, a UW Evans School of Public Policy and Governance lecturer, led a bipartisan panel that included Maud Daudon, President and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Washington Student Achievement Council Chair; Cyrus Habib, Lieutenant Governor and former legislator for the 48th legislative district; and Rob McKenna, ’85, former Attorney General and member of the UW Board of Regents’ Government Task Force.

“I’m proud that Republicans and Democrats worked together. I hope that legislators will keep that commitment.” — Cyrus Habib on the 2016 tuition cut

This year, lawmakers are entering the legislative session in Olympia in the midst of a difficult political environment. The legislature has failed to fully fund K-12 education and has been under a court order from the State Supreme Court to create an education funding plan since 2012’s McCleary decision.

With so much focus on basic education, higher education funding is not a top priority. Despite this, there has been significant progress for higher education — in 2016, lawmakers passed an historic tuition cut, slashing the cost for students by 15 to 20 percent. Habib, who was a State Senator during the 2016 session, told the crowd, “I’m proud that Republicans and Democrats worked together. I hope that legislators will keep that commitment.” It’s critical that advocates fight to make sure we move forward, not back.

The 2016 election laid bare anxieties about the changing economy. Technology’s growth, particularly in the Seattle area, has allowed the UW to position itself as one of the drivers of the new economy, producing graduates, technologies and start-ups in new, innovative fields. As traditional industries have declined, areas that typically voted Democratic nationwide and in Washington state, like Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties, voted for Trump, reflecting voters’ feelings that they’ve been left behind.

“You have to have advanced training in this economy.” — Rob McKenna

The dynamics of the election have implications for the role of higher education in our society. Daudon posed this question: “How do we do a better job of developing multiple pathways that can get you where you need to be?” McKenna predicted that the lesson Trump and legislators will take from the election is to place more emphasis on job and vocational training — as well as other access points to higher education like community college. Trump voters, McKenna argued, feel left behind because there’s a mismatch between jobs and the amount of training available. “You have to have advanced training in this economy,” he said.

Habib countered that the focus on skills training should not detract from how we think about higher education. “We can’t think of college just as worker creation,” he said. Habib went on to argue that the narrative “college isn’t for everyone” is often one the privileged applies to the underprivileged. He added that the unemployment rate for the college-educated never fell below five percent during the recession, making the case that we should still place emphasis on making sure students make it to a four-year institution.

Other topics included the achievement gap (McKenna: “We’re not doing enough”), the State Need Grant (Daudon: “We’re failing to provide for 25,000 people who qualify”), undocumented students (Habib: “When you have someone who comes here as a child and gets in just like everybody else, they deserve it”) and the campus appearance of Breitbart’s Milo Yiannopoulos (McKenna: “Campuses should be places where you feel safe. But you shouldn’t be coddled.”)

With the challenges of the legislative session and the transition to a new national government, the biggest takeaway of the evening is that advocates need to stay informed and engaged in higher education issues. With so much uncertainty, it’s more important than ever that we stand up for education for all. In the words of Daudon, “Everybody here tonight should spend time in Olympia this year. UW Impact does an amazing job organizing.”

If you’d like to get involved, visit uwimpact.org.