Sound Off: 2-year schools spark growth

The link between education and economic development has become increasingly clear. Together, they are now issues critical to Washington’s families, according to Gov. Chris Gregoire. They’re critical to the state and our future.

Gov. Gregoire released her biennial budget request last week with resounding support from community and technical college leaders. The governor’s budget request addresses many of the priorities of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

The 34 community and technical colleges across the state served 460,000 students last year, providing adult basic education, workforce training and transfer preparation. Over 40 percent of graduates of Washington’s universities got their start at a two-year college.

The Board recently developed a set of goals to direct the two-year colleges for the next 10 years. The goals are imbedded with the belief that higher education is vital to society and individuals. Economic prosperity, the livelihood of families and individuals, and the strength of communities are just a few of the tangible results from greater access to higher education. We are pleased the governor endorsed one of the Board’s major goals of freezing tuition for the next two years.

Community and technical colleges already make a significant contribution to the state’s economy, but more needs to be done. Our state and local economies will be increasingly reliant on a well educated and skilled workforce. Two-year colleges are part of the solution.

Gov. Gregoire showed her recognition of the important role of two-year colleges by proposing a significant investment so more students could enroll in high-demand programs at two-year colleges. Currently, 22 special high-demand programs are funded at community and technical colleges across the state, including Skagit Valley College. Of those, 14 are in healthcare, which has significant shortages.

Gov. Gregoire proposed expanding high demand programs for apprenticeships, early education, math and science, as well as students learning basic education and job training skills. This emphasis will provide opportunities for younger and older students and will further bolster the competitiveness of our state’s employers.

The State Board is also looking for better ways to serve students and take steps to keep people from falling behind. The pace of change in society is staggering. The income gap between the haves and have nots is growing. The difference is between those who have obtained some higher education and those who do not have that advantage. We must provide greater access for all students to our state’s colleges and universities. There is a great need from industries demanding employees with greater knowledge and skills.

The governor’s budget proposes greater support for low-income and first-generation college students to get on the higher education path. She puts forward comprehensive, flexible financial aid and support for low-income students to succeed in job training programs. Freezing tuition for the next two years at the state’s community and technical colleges is essential to making college more affordable for all students. It’s time to put an end to the large tuition increases that students have seen over the last 10 years. The percentage of family income for tuition has doubled in the last 15 years. Ten years ago students paid 29 percent of the cost of their public education. Today they pay 37 percent.

The challenge to keep Washington globally competitive will require innovation, in both the public and private sectors. Community and technical colleges are adapting to the changing nature of how people learn, how they access information and the role of technology in the virtual classroom. Now, more than 80,000 placebound students have an avenue to higher education they didn’t have before. Adults, whether recent high school graduates or working adults, want to effectively function in our technological world. Supporting faculty with money for professional development and experience is required to furthering innovation at the colleges.

The State Board for Community and Technical Colleges looks forward to working with the Legislature and the governor to continue the discussion on higher education and economic development. The two-year colleges are a significant contributor to Washington’s prosperity, and the education provided at your local college is making a difference!

Jim Bricker, Coupeville, is a member of the governor-appointed State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. He works in government affairs for PEMCO Financial Services.