Nationwide Report Card Gives Washington Universities Four Cs, Five Ds

A comprehensive report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s “Leaders and Laggards” series analyzed and compared several aspects of American public universities’ performances, and revealed Washington state colleges to be lacking in a variety of areas and excelling in others. Entitled “A state-by-state report card on public postsecondary education,” the results translated data into a letter grade system. Institutions were graded in categories that measured not only student access and success, but also financial efficiency and cost effectiveness, how different degree paths met the labor market demand, the structure of the colleges’ policies, and the methods used to track spending and student attainment. The research delved into how well U.S. colleges are functioning as an entity to find ways to produce a higher graduation rate with an equally higher quality of education. Structuring some means of a common method of tracking student retention and post-graduation employability rates were also major focuses of the report, stating that “in the 21st century, a well educated population is the cornerstone of a healthy society for all.”

These results come at a time when the need for postsecondary education is increasing in sync with higher tuition rates and state budget cuts. Financial cutbacks leave campuses with less resources and outlets to effectively recruit, support and educate students. Tuition has risen in the last four years, making attendance difficult or impossible. However, it is projected that by 2018, 2/3 of all jobs will require a postsecondary education, which will leave the U.S. three million college degrees short of being able to maintain the workforce.

Washington State was one of the nation’s leaders at the four-year level with 84.2% student retention and 68.7% completion rates, earning As and Bs in categories concerning students success and campus cost efficiency. However, the state fell short with D grades regarding policy environment and innovative and experimental learning models such as online resources. At both a four and six-year level, Washington has more than 10% higher graduation rates than the national average of 50% and ranks as one of the few states with 23 completions for every 100 full time undergraduate students. With a national median cost per completion of a bachelor’s degree at $68,000, Washington’s is pricier at $71,727. The national average salary gap between those with a high school diploma and college graduates is $21,200, while Washington’s is $23,426. Of 2011’s UW Tacoma BA undergraduates, 84% reported that they currently are or will soon be earning less than $60,000 annually.

The report assessed each college’s public accountability based on whether records were kept of student learning and performance levels, post-graduation success, and costs per degree earned. Numbers kept of graduates who completed extra credits and financial savings from reforms on campus were also taken into account. Washington was one of the several states to earn a D in this area. Innovation such as focus and funding for online learning and meeting the labor market demand upon graduation also lacked in this state with D markings.

UW Tacoma fares better in statistics: a recent study put forth by American Enterprise Institute found that the campus’ graduation rates are at 75%, which surpasses the state’s average of around 60% and towers over the national average of 50%.

National results from the “Leaders and Laggards” report were more shocking than Washington State’s moderately unimpressive assessment. Less than half of students enrolled in a four-year program complete it within six years in seventeen states, and in only three states did students obtain a college degree within six years. Of UW Tacoma’s 2011 undergraduate class, 57.6% reported that obtaining their degree took two years or less and 33.7% took 3-4 years. Only 6.6% of the graduate class took up to six years in pursuit of their degree. More than half said that they felt prepared to enter the workforce, and over 80% felt highly satisfied with the quality of education they received.

On a national scale, public universities are struggling with rising tuition and funding budget cuts and Washington is no exception, with big leaps to make in innovative learning models and policy making. Although it’s clear many aspects of the state’s higher education could be improved, Washington’s completion rates are still at the forefront of the country, and student success is ranked remarkably high.