It was Washington State University President Elson S. Floyd who was scheduled to speak to the Wenatchee Rotary Thursday. The Cougar alumni gathered, crimson clad. Cougar Gold cheese was served. Many expressions of pride were contemplated by the WSU-connected graduates, parents, faculty, retired faculty, researchers and more. WSU roots sink deep here.
But it was not to be. Olympia called. Floyd’s input was needed as the state House and Senate work out their long-overdue compromise on the state operating budget. In his stead Floyd sent Anson W. Fatland, WSU’s associate vice president of Economic Development and External Affairs. Fatland told the audience what it already must know, with its multiple connections to the state’s institutions of higher learning. It is something the Legislature should not forget, in its yearly quest to erase deficits and balance budgets. Washington’s public universities and colleges are investments with high rates of return. The ideas and human ingenuity that flow from our institutions of higher learning flood the regional economy and form the basis of entire industries. In a modern economy based on technological advance and skilled services, this is not a small matter. You can’t shortchange higher education for long without robbing bits and chunks of the state’s future prosperity.
WSU’s 2011 budget was $868.4 million. Of that, 22 percent came from state appropriations, said Fatland. Student tuition and fees provided 22 percent. Grants and contracts for research provided 26 percent. The remainder came from services, federal grants, investment income and gifts. Fatland did not mention it, but budget cutters should note that after a long and yet-unbroken string of double-digit tuition hikes and like cuts in state funding, the students at our state’s four-year institutions pay nearly two-thirds of the cost of their education; the taxpayers a bit more than a third. That’s a complete role reversal, the consequences now stinging family budgets and compromising futures across the state.
For every tax dollar invested, there is a dividend, Fatland said. From 2008 to 2012, WSU received $1 billion in external research funding, including $27 million from private industry. That produced 55 patents, hundreds of proposals, valued intellectual property and tangible contributions to industries like agriculture, biotech, wood products and many others. In 2011 WSU received grants of $105 million for agricultural research, which they estimate will create $1.6 billion in economic benefits. The $6 billion-plus state fruit industry and the $1 billion-plus wheat industry owe much to WSU researchers and extension services. In engineering and physical sciences the grants and resulting contributions are as great. A WSU researcher, for instance, has devised a means to triple the life of a lithium-ion battery. “We make a lot of contributions to the economy that not a lot of people are aware of,” said Fatland.
Then, there’s an investment in individual human beings, to improve their skills and economic value, and produce lifelong returns. “We create human capital,” said Fatland. “We educate students.”
WSU awarded 5,221 bachelor’s degrees in 2011. Each recipient can be expected to earn on average $3.5 million in their lifetime, and $1.7 million of can be attributed to WSU’s input. For those graduates combined, the added value of their education will bring $8.9 billion in lifetime earnings. And, 90 percent of those graduates will make their home in Washington, and pay its future taxes.
Add it up, and WSU returns $18.89 in economic activity for every dollar of its state appropriation. “If you were given a rate of return of 19 percent, you’d take it,” said Fatland.
I hope, President Floyd somehow made this point in Olympia Thursday.
Tracy Warner’s column appears Thursdays and Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com or 665-1163.