Community Colleges meet growing need as costs rise

On a warm Friday night a couple weeks ago, I handed out diplomas and certificates to hundreds of students who were completing their studies at Everett Community College. It’s one of the best parts of my job to see the smiling faces of the students and their proud parents and family members.

And yet, as college costs rise and the economy begins to recover, some families are questioning whether higher education is a worthwhile investment. The public and the state are asking the same question as legislators continue to wrestle with tight budgets.

According to a survey by the Pew Research Center, 57 percent of Americans say the higher education system fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend. A large majority — 75 percent — say college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.

At the same time, employers are struggling to find skilled workers, especially for manufacturing, aerospace, health care and engineering jobs.

So what’s the solution? Community and technical colleges.

Although state funding for community and technical colleges in our state has decreased, resulting in higher costs for students, community colleges are still the most reasonable option for affordable, high-quality education.

As students, parents and the public look at the bottom line, community colleges are becoming the first choice for families and are being recognized by legislators for cost-effective education and training that meets the needs of employers now and in the future.

Annual tuition at EvCC for a full-time student is less than half the cost of a public four-year school and far lower than attending a for-profit college. The lower cost is a key reason why about four out of ten graduates with four-year degrees in Washington get their start at a community or technical college.

But cost isn’t the only bottom line that matters.

Students who transfer from EvCC to most four-year schools in Washington do as well as or better in their junior and senior years than students who started at those schools as freshmen, with equally high — or higher — GPAs.

That’s quite an accomplishment and tribute to our excellent faculty and staff. It tells me our students leave here prepared to succeed.

In the past few years, EvCC has intensified its focus on student success. Last year, the college was selected as an Achieving the Dream school, earning a $550,000 grant from College Spark Washington to increase the number of students who stay enrolled and graduate. EvCC is one of 16 schools in the state participating in this program.

Achieving the Dream is strengthening EvCC’s ongoing efforts to increase student success by using data to identify the most successful practices and identify gaps so we can help more students reach their educational goals.

For example, EvCC is offering more classes that include supplemental instruction — free organized study sessions facilitated by a qualified and trained tutor who attends classes with students. In classes with supplemental instruction, students who participated earned, on average, an entire letter grade better than those who did not.

EvCC is also offering new options for students who aren’t ready for college-level math. The college is streamlining its pre-college math classes and adding a self-paced math class that allows students to focus only on the areas they’re struggling with.

EvCC math instructors are working with area high schools, sharing ideas about ways to help students be more prepared for college-level math and the transition to college math classes. The college is offering math placement testing at some high schools to help students see how prepared they are for college math and encourage them to continue their math education in high school.

Other partnerships with K-12 schools to encourage success include the College in the High School program, which gives more than 2,000 high school students the opportunity to earn EvCC college credit in approved advanced high school courses. Students can affordably earn college credit without leaving their high schools.

At EvCC, instructors and education planners work with all students to create a custom plan for their education by their third quarter, helping ensure students are taking the classes they need to meet their goals.

Our graduates who complete professional and technical programs demonstrate that they have the skills employers need.

This year, EvCC created the Aerospace Solutions Group, an innovative and responsive division designed to connect regional aerospace and manufacturing companies with workforce development and training solutions provided by the college. That’s just one of many ways we’re reaching out to business and industry in Snohomish County.

We know that local aerospace companies need engineers, so we’re increasing the pipeline by adding an evening section of our highly regarded engineering program. Our engineering graduates can earn their four-year degrees on EvCC’s campus in Washington State University’s new mechanical engineering bachelor’s degree program starting this fall. Almost half of the students who are starting this new degree program are EvCC alumni.

Our welding and fabrication program produces trained employees who are helping meet the needs of aerospace suppliers and other local manufacturing companies. We award degrees in health care so that employers like Providence Regional Medical Center and The Everett Clinic can meet their hiring needs. These and other programs were created in order to better serve both the community and the students in this region.

None of this work would be possible without community involvement and support. I am especially grateful for the hundreds of community members who took part in EvCC’s strategic planning process during the past few months, helping shape the college’s vision for the future, and I look forward to strengthening our community relationships as we move ahead.

At our strategic planning meeting, one of the most challenging issues we discussed was the financial future of the college. The percentage of the college’s budget funded by the state has declined by 22 percent since 2008-09, yet we are serving 18 percent more students than we did in 2008-09 because they know a college education will make a difference in their lives.

I am thankful the Legislature chose to invest in education this session and voted for a budget without further cuts to higher education. This session, I hope legislators will consider community colleges’ incredible return on investment for our state’s future.

Most of all, when families ask me about the value of a college education, I encourage them to talk to an EvCC graduate. There are thousands of EvCC alumni in our community — 80 percent of our former students stay here to live and work.

EvCC alumni include Everett Police Chief Kathy Atwood, teachers Larry and Jack O’Donnell, businessman Dwayne Lane, former Herald publisher Larry Hanson, artist Chuck Close, Major League Baseball’s Rick Anderson and journalist William Prochnau.

Our newest group of alumni includes nearly 1,800 EvCC students who earned degrees and certificates this past year.

When I hand students their diplomas, I know that they will have a brighter future because of their education. Is an Everett Community College education worthwhile to students and our community? Absolutely.

About the author

David N. Beyer is president of Everett Community College.

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