Pay hikes at WWU exactly the problem

In a single collective bargaining agreement, Western Washington University has undermined state efforts to control costs, spotlighted the tuition bubble, and spurred interest in a new delivery model. Western’s mischief has not gone unnoticed.

Pointing to high unemployment and “the worst economic times in 80 years,” Gov. Chris Gregoire wrote WWU president Bruce Shepard to express “grave concerns” about the school’s decision to increase faculty pay by more than 14 percent over the next three years. Department chairs and faculty receiving promotions get additional boosts.

The agreement is not subject to review by the state budget office or Legislature.

Gregoire writes that she and the Legislature did not intend for higher student tuition to lead to “significant salary increases for faculty” and is “perplexed” at how the school thinks it can afford them. Responding on “Bruce’s Blog,” Shepherd praises his colleagues’ “heroic” efforts in weathering the economic realities. He celebrates the contract, saying it represents the “courage and leadership these difficult times demand.” But he doesn’t address the affordability question. Efforts to cast the contract as a duel between tuition and faculty salaries, he dismisses as “pernicious … rhetorical hyperbole.”

He applauds student leaders who support the contract and “do not succumb to appeals to baser motives.” These debt-laden students may soon be less sympathetic. More than half of all bachelor’s degree holders under age 25 were unemployed or underemployed last year, according to economist Andrew Biggs, writing in the Wall Street Journal.

There’s been a lot of “heroic” sacrifice exhibited during this wartime recession by families trying to keep it together, often in circumstances far less appealing than the faculty lounge. Let’s not lose perspective.

Gregoire fears the agreement will sap support for higher education funding and erode confidence in the ability of state colleges and universities to manage their affairs responsibly. With respect to support for higher education funding, I hope she’s mistaken. But Western’s actions should cause lawmakers to rethink how much collective bargaining independence they want to give the institutions. The governor anticipated a more strategic response, targeting higher pay “to recruit or retain specific faculty.” Across-the-board increases ignore market nuance and the premium rightly claimed by faculty in high-demand fields.

The governor’s office is negotiating the next two-year contract with state workers. The Western agreement complicates an already difficult bargaining environment.

There’s a larger concern. Since 1980, college tuition has grown an average of 7.5 percent a year, far outpacing medical care (5.7 percent) and inflation (3.8 percent). Glenn Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, has long warned of the higher education bubble.

“Bubbles form when too many people expect values to go up forever,” he writes. “Simply put, the cost of higher education has far outpaced its actual value.”

That doesn’t mean that higher education fails to improve career earnings prospects. Degree holders generally earn more. But the increased earnings often do not justify the high debt burden required of many students. The price exceeds the value. And not all degrees are created equal, something a lot of students are learning too late and with little recourse.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote last May of the rapid embrace of online technologies by first-tier institutions. M.I.T., Stanford, Harvard and private companies offer online programs enabling students to get valuable credentials to expand career opportunities. The credentials certify skills and knowledge that may no longer be guaranteed by a bachelor’s degree.

“Big breakthroughs happen when what is suddenly possible meets what is desperately necessary,” Friedman writes, noting that the need for “low-cost, quality higher education is more acute than ever.”

Heritage Foundation scholar Stuart Butler says higher education is approaching a cost and demand driven “transformative realignment.” As one positive example he cites Western Governors University, a private online university with which our state formed a partnership last year.

These alternatives are growing in popularity and viability. Many young adults thrive in a wired environment. An excellent advanced education fuels success in an economy driven by innovation and technology. But for many students, the traditional model no longer works. Correspondingly, for many traditional colleges and universities, the future promises wrenching change.

Western’s out-of-touch settlement may have hastened that day.

Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. His email address is rsdavis@simeonpartners.com.

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