Community colleges are proven assets

It used to be that community colleges — local, nonprofit, state-funded, accredited schools — were the community’s best-kept secret. We were the places everyone went to for one reason or another but nobody talked about.

The Associate of Arts degree (“just about the best bang for the education buck you can find,” according to fell off resumes after our graduates earned their bachelor’s degrees or landed their first jobs.

Then, the economy went rocky, really rocky — and all that changed. President George W. Bush proposed increasing support for community colleges in his Fourth State of the Union address “… so they can train workers for the industries that are creating the most new jobs.”

President Obama held up our state’s I-BEST program as a national model (basic education and job training combined) to get people into higher-paying jobs faster. When he talks about goals to help ensure that every American has at least one year of postsecondary education and that the U.S. has the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020 — we’re high on the agenda.

Last year I was invited to participate in a “Women in STEM” (science, technology, engineering, math) panel at the White House. Recently, Congressman Rick Larsen visited campus to talk with me and some student leaders about potential budget cuts to higher education (including some of the federal grants that Edmonds CC receives) and the importance of continued funding of federal financial aid, including Pell Grants.

We’re getting that level of attention nationally. And, of course, there’s NBC’s TV show “Community.” When they start taking jabs at you in a sitcom, you know you’ve arrived.

Community colleges are now getting big-time recognition for what we’ve been steadily doing all along: stepping in when the economy’s rough to retrain workers and helping adults learn basic skills so they can move into better jobs, as well as giving local students an affordable option to start their bachelor’s degrees.

In 2009-10, 19,000 Washington state students who started at a community college and then transferred to a 4-year school collectively saved more than $100 million. But it’s not just about helping our students or saving them money (although we love those success stories!); it’s about benefiting neighborhoods and local businesses and, ultimately, our economy. We’re innovators that strengthen the economy and become a bright spot IN the community FOR the community. We bolster county revenues, the state’s budget, and our nation’s security.

Our two-year colleges are local, flexible, and job-relevant. In 2010, 116,000 laid-off workers turned to Washington’s community and technical colleges for retraining. Within a few months of completing their programs, 77 percent had jobs and nearly half were receiving higher wages than they were before. A year later, 94 percent were still employed and strengthening Washington’s economy.

It’s no wonder that about 470,000 Washingtonians turn to our colleges each year for academics and job training. Education pays. It’s estimated that the accumulated contribution of Edmonds Community College’s former students adds $166.1 million in income annually to Snohomish County.

It’s no surprise then that when times got extra tough, community colleges showed up on the national stage. What is surprising is that, considering all of this, here in Washington, here at home in our progressive state, the legislature may be considering further funding cuts for community colleges (already down almost $175 million, or 23 percent, since 2009).

The imperative to fully fund K-12 education and the reluctance to increase tax revenues leaves community colleges very vulnerable. But it makes no sense to weaken these economic engines.

We’re looking out for our state’s future prosperity. Community and technical colleges in Washington offer programs in aerospace, alternative energy, business services, hospitality, health care, advanced manufacturing, and sustainable agriculture — all critical areas of growth in Washington.

President Obama believes that the United States must once again lead the world in college attainment, and that a larger number of those graduates need to be prepared to compete for high-paying STEM occupations.

STEM-related jobs help our tax base, as employees in STEM occupations typically earn higher salaries than other workers. And there are jobs; for every unemployed person in Washington, there are two vacant STEM jobs.

The national goal — to train one million additional STEM graduates over the next decade to fill the growing number of jobs that require STEM skills — will require our participation. One-third of all STEM baccalaureate degree holders in Washington began at a community or technical college.

With 20 National Science Foundation grants, Edmonds Community College provides opportunities for more students to study in STEM fields. By providing scholarships and support services and reaching out to those who, without support, wouldn’t earn math or science degrees, including many women, underrepresented minorities, low-income, and first-generation college students, we are increasing the number of students in science.

We’re a proven asset. We provide opportunities for students to go above and beyond in their coursework so that they are optimally prepared to succeed at the university level. Students come to our college because it’s affordable and then discover that our instructors are experts — many hold doctorates or are industry authorities; that they can excel in our smaller class sizes; and that they are very well prepared to transfer (in fact, they graduate from four-year colleges and universities at a higher rate than students who start out there).

We give our students opportunities to challenge themselves with high-level academic programs including: honors classes; undergraduate research projects in disciplines such as physics with partners including CWU, WSU, WWU, UW, and NASA; and service-learning projects with more than 50 community partners.

We’re strong partners with other state colleges and with local businesses. In the aerospace and advanced manufacturing field, for example, Edmonds Community College partners with the Boeing Co., Giddens Industries, and Crane Aerospace to match its training to employer needs. Classes introduce students to composite materials and engineering design, preparing students for aerospace careers or to enter bachelor’s degree programs. Students can also gain business skills for manufacturing careers.

Edmonds CC houses the National Resource Center for Materials Education Technology, which provides curriculum for materials technology nationwide, and operates the Washington Aerospace Training and Research (WATR) Center, which offers accelerated, industry-specific, entry-level training in aerospace manufacturing. The WATR center has placed 644 students in living-wage jobs in aerospace since opening in June of 2010.

It’s clear the state would be better off making an investment in our colleges. Instead, we’re wondering what we’ll do if we face further cuts. We appreciate your support and hope that the legislature at least maintains the current level of funding for our state’s 34 community and technical colleges. In your community, Edmonds, Everett, Cascadia, and Shoreline community colleges and Lake Washington Institute of Technology are all working together to streamline services for students and be even better. Help us keep doing the work you need us to do.

Dr. Jean Hernandez is president of Edmonds Community College.

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