Washington consistently ranks as one of the most highly educated places in the country, but what those Top 10 lists commonly obscure is that the state imports a lot of that talent while failing to grow its own.
For more than 15 years, enrollment in postsecondary education for recently graduated high school seniors has been stuck at 60% even as employers continue to demand a more educated workforce. The national average is closer to 70%.
The attainment gap is also pronounced. The estimated rate earning a credential, whether a degree, apprenticeship or certificate, is 31% for Black students, 30% for Latino students and 18% for Native American and Indigenous students, according to the Partnership for Learning. Attainment for students from low-income backgrounds is also abysmal, at 26%.
The need for a more educated workforce is only expected to grow, putting a living wage further and further away from those who fall short. Already, over the next five years, 70% of job openings in Washington will require some form of postsecondary education.
Solutions have been elusive even as the challenge has remained stubbornly consistent.
The state has taken steps in the right direction, including improving access to financial aid through the Washington College Grant, simplified admissions processes and helping students with alternate career pathways through the Career Connect Washington system.
However, more needs to be done to get Washington kids to take advantage of the opportunities available, said Jeff Vincent, chair of the Washington Student Achievement Council.
The council has proposed the Washington Career and College Pathways Innovation Challenge Program, which would help support, at the local level, programs that successfully increase postsecondary enrollment.
Vincent points to community-based partnerships such as the Chehalis Student Achievement Initiative. Over the last few years, for example, the program has impressively increased from 43% to 73% the number of students who go into some type of secondary program upon graduation.
The idea is to move away from a one-size-fits-all kind of statewide policy and find innovative local programs, use a data-driven approach to determine success and work to replicate it in other communities.
“Yeah, we need some funding out of Olympia, but this is about how we’re going to work it in Chehalis or Aberdeen, to how we’re going to work it over in Forks or Spokane,” Vincent said. “This is not saying that what we do in Seattle is going to fit you over in Yakima.”
The latest research shows that programs that are targeted, personalized and socially connected are the most effective approaches for getting students engaged beyond high school, according to a report from the WSAC.
Gov. Jay Inslee has included the Career and College Pathways Innovation Challenge in his proposed 2022 budget, requesting $50 million over three years. That is a small price to pay to allow local innovation to lead the way statewide.
Washington is a great place to live and work and will continue to attract an educated workforce from all over. But lawmakers would be wise to support this program and help homegrown talent to blossom.