Race to the bottom: Higher ed cuts will hold back students, businesses, economic growth

In today’s global economy, the value of a college degree (about $1.1 million more in lifetime earnings) can’t be understated. Don’t get me wrong — trade schools and apprenticeship programs are more important than ever — but in our high-tech, high-skill economy, few people would argue that software engineers and computer programmers will have trouble finding a job.

Of course, the trouble isn’t finding jobs for highly trained workers, it’s getting them the education and training they need to apply.

Take, for example, an article in Thursday’s Seattle Times titled “The Budget Breakdown: Trimming higher ed may erode job opportunities,” which details the short- and long-term effects of cutting state support for colleges and universities.

There’s little doubt that state cutbacks will translate into higher tuition at all of the state’s two- and four-year colleges and universities. Many fear the cuts will erode the quality of state schools, which can’t raise tuition fast enough to make up for lost money.

But [Brian Bershad, engineering site director for Google Seattle/Kirkland] and others say the reductions have another, hidden cost: They erase opportunities for Washington students, meaning local kids won’t receive the training they need to land a job at Google — or with a local startup that one day could become the Next Big Thing.

For their part, companies like Google aren’t waiting for Washington’s universities to pump out more trained grads — they can simply hire a computer whiz from California, Boston, or India. But they sure could use some home-grown talent:

[Bershad would] like to hire more UW computer-science engineers — a lot more. “If the UW could produce 1,000 amazing engineers every year,” Bershad said, “we’d find a way to hire them.”

Unfortunately for Washington state high schoolers — thousands of whom would like to get a computer science degree in the next few years — budget cuts have stifled admission to those (and other) programs, forcing them to go out-of-state, forgo a degree, or opt for a different program.

Fewer graduates with specialized degrees is just the early fallout from sharp reductions in state support for higher education. Changes in the Governor’s budget signal more than major budget cuts — they indicate a fundamental shift in public financing for higher education toward a “high-tuition/high-aid” model, which as documented in EOI’s brief Losing By Degrees, will further discourage enrollment:

[T]he evidence suggests that injecting a market-driven model of financing into the public sphere of education will lead to a lack of access for low-income students, increased strain on the middle class, and an explosion of student loan debt.

At a time like this, when manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas and family-wage jobs are difficult to find, our recovery from the recession depends on the ability of younger generations of Americans to find and keep good jobs – and those jobs are most readily available to well-trained and educated individuals. Keeping the doors to educational opportunity open is key to economic recovery, as noted by Gaston Caperton, President of the College Board:

We must make college more affordable by restraining growth in costs and prices, ensuring that available aid is used wisely and insisting that state governments commit to fully funding higher education.

Expanding access to college is a critical priority because barriers to higher education don’t just stop individuals from reaching their full potential — ultimately, they hold back the entire country.

In the end, we must ask ourselves what future we want for our children and our country. To maintain our robust innovation economy, we must invest in individuals who will be the next Paul Allen or Bill Gates — both of whom got their start in the University of Washington computer lab. Investing in the education of future generations is minor when compared to its returns — and will pay dividends for decades to come.

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