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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

February 1, 2012 at 10:00 AM

Higher ed funding cuts endanger state economy

At 7 p.m. tonight at Town Hall Seattle the presidents of Washington’s six public universities will be on stage to discuss the effect of cutting state funding for higher education by nearly 50 percent. But it’s not just an education issue, but one that also endangers Washington’s competitiveness. That’s why the event will also feature a panel of business leaders: Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith; REI Chief Executive Sally Jewell, who is also a University of Washington regent and Laura Peterson, Boeing’s vice president for state & local government operations in the Northwest.

This will be no ivory tower discussion. Even with the headwinds of the economy and globalization, the connection between a college education and better earnings remains. College graduates are less likely to be unemployed.

I can’t think of a high-wage, high-tech economy that’s not anchored by great universities: Silicon Valley, Boston, North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park. The Puget Sound region was lucky that Bill Boeing and Bill Gates put their companies here, but it also made much of its luck by building the UW into a top institution.

The result is a magnet for world talent, and an economy that can absorb the UW’s graduates, rather than them having to leave as happens in some cities in the east and Midwest with great universities but limited economies. As a result, Seattle is a smart, young, high-wage city that has ridden out the recession well. This accounts for much of Seattle’s ability to reinvent itself even as the global economy keeps changing and wounding more and more American metropolitan areas.

As Arun Raha, the outgoing state economist, told me earlier this month: Washington badly needs another cluster to complement software and aerospace. Could it be life sciences and biotech, which in striking distance of national leadership? Not if the UW must continue to absorb continued state cutbacks. Outside research grants alone are not enough, and fiscal problems in the other Washington make the future trajectory of federal research spending uncertain. Adequate funding is also a critical element in attracting and retaining top research and teaching faculty: These stars can go anywhere; why come to a state that doesn’t seem to value its universities?

Tuition is rising and fewer in-state students have the opportunity to get into college here. This is a symptom and driver of America’s dangerous loss of socio-economic mobility, where it’s much less likely that people can rise out of their income group than in the past. For many who can gain admittance, a dangerous and debilitating bubble of student-loan debt is emerging. All told, the malpractice by state leaders in education (and the situation of K-12 funding is dismal, as well) amounts to an astonishing failure to advance human capital and create opportunity.

Nor can we assume that the most talented students and investment from the world will keep coming. As the United States continues falling behind other advanced nations in both funding for education and for research, the next wave of loss will not be high-tech manufacturing, as spotlighted in the recent New York Times’ articles on Apple’s Chinese serf-workers, but the highest level of design and creative work.

The world wants Seattle’s assets. In the zero-sum game of slow growth, the old win-win of late 20th century globalization will no longer hold. The real Battle in Seattle should be to retain and enhance our unusual advantages, and this includes higher education here and across the state.

And Don’t Miss: The biggest risk to the economy in 2012 and what’s an economy for anyway? || Robert Reich

Today’s Econ Haiku:

Cut those college funds

We shoot ourselves in the foot

And then we reload

Comments | More in Income/living standards

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