Educational attainment gap must be bridged

Washington is one important step closer to increasing educational attainment for students and workers. ESHB 2626, a bill that acknowledges and endorses the planning targets proposed by the Washington Student Achievement Council in its Ten-Year Roadmap Report, was signed into law as a result of the 2014 Legislative session.

The statewide goals to increase educational attainment by 2023 are:

All adults ages 25-44 will have a high school diploma or equivalent, and

70 percent of adults ages 25-44 will have a postsecondary credential.

The Senate unanimously passed the bill on March 7 and the House concurred with the Senate amendments by an overwhelming majority with a 96-2 vote for final passage on March 11. Washington now joins other states, including Oregon and California, in establishing goals for increasing educational attainment in state law.

Our state’s economic competitiveness and civic well-being depends on a well-educated workforce. In just six years, 70 percent of jobs in Washington will require some postsecondary education. Yet today, only about 50 percent of our state’s adults have a postsecondary credential and only 89 percent have a high school diploma or GED. We are in a global competition for talent and we are not succeeding at keeping our own kids in the race.

This alarming gap has major implications for individuals and for our state as a whole. More education means higher wages and lower unemployment. In addition, people who attain higher levels of education are also more likely to vote, tend to be healthier, and require less public assistance. Without taking action to encourage and increase attainment, we risk a future where millions of state residents are cut off from opportunities to share in our state’s prosperity.

So how are we doing?

In some respects, the landscape of post-secondary education opportunities looks healthy: Washington ranks first in the nation in the level of need-based funding per undergraduate enrollment. Our public and private non-profit baccalaureate institutions have graduation rates among the highest in the nation. Each year, our community and technical colleges prepare nearly 500,000 students to join the workforce or continue their education. Washington is also home to 300 private career schools that provide a wide range of training to support employer and community needs for skilled workers.

However, these rosier numbers don’t tell the whole story. Our postsecondary participation rates are very low, particularly when it comes to public education at the undergraduate (17.7 percent) and graduate (5.5 percent) levels. Underrepresented students of color, students from low-income families, and students with disabilities face additional barriers.

The cost of post-secondary education is another obstacle to attainment. Washington students who enroll and persist in college do well, but face increased student loan debt and underfunded grant programs. For example, students who receive State Need Grants are more likely to stay in school and graduate; however, 32,000 eligible students were unable to receive the State Need Grant in 2012-13 because the program is underfunded.

We must meet the needs of all students in our state in spite of these hurdles. In addition to educational attainment goals, the 2013 Roadmap outlines twelve strategies to expand on the good work of our education agencies, institutions, and community partners. These strategies include increasing need-based aid, expanding opportunities for high school students to earn college credit, and enhancing alternative routes to support returning adult students.

This year, the council begins development of specific proposals that will propel us towards meeting the new attainment goals. The council is committed to providing the leadership necessary to do so, but we will need all parts of our education system fully engaged in the same direction. By moving students up the attainment ladder, they will realize economic benefits and stability, and our state will be able to sustain its economic health and civic well-being. This will take commitment from the Legislature, higher education institutions, and our local schools. We can meet this challenge together. Our future depends on it.

Maud Daudon is president and CEO of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and chairwoman of the Washington Student Achievement Council.

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