Editorial: Community colleges bridge between high school and jobs

By The Herald Editorial Board

We’re maintaining some confidence that the Legislature will be successful during the coming session and make substantial progress in meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic K-12 education and end the over-reliance on local school levies.

But meeting those obligations builds only half the bridge that would provide the education that students will need to secure jobs that pay well and offer good opportunities to career advancement.

As we reported last month, over the next five short years, Washington can expect to see 740,000 job openings among the state’s employers; about 260,000 of those will be career jobs paying up to $100,000 a year, while 330,000 will be entry-level “career-path” jobs, offering salaries of $30,000 to $45,000, according to a report by Washington Roundtable, an economic policy center whose board members represent many of the state’s major employers.

The other half of that bridge to those jobs, of course, is higher education, and the state’s 34 community and technical colleges are key to those career-path jobs that require the training and certification those schools offer.

As it satisfies its K-12 mandate, the Legislature and Gov. Jay Inslee, who will soon release his budget recommendation, need to make a substantial reinvestment in higher education and the state’s community and technical colleges in particular.

Edmonds and Everett community colleges, because of their location, will be key to educating and training students who can fill those jobs in aerospace, manufacturing, bio-technology and health care that will open in the county.

The state’s community and technical colleges, serving 386,000 students, are making a request of $200 million in the state’s two-year operating budget and $338 million in the capital construction budget.

Included in the operating budget is $81 million for colleges’ guided pathways program, which groups courses into specific career paths, including the Math, Engineering and Science Achievement program that helps under-represented students pursue degrees in STEM fields. A boost of $7.3 million would expand MESA beyond the current six schools — EdCC is one of those schools — to all 34 colleges. The program is showing great success; of MESA’s 2011-12 graduating class 100 percent went on to earn bachelor’s degrees in a STEM field.

About $110 million of the $338 million capital budget would be spent systemwide for the maintenance and preservation of college campuses, but both Edmonds and Everett are in line for portion of that budget. Edmonds is seeking $37.8 million for its Science, Engineering and Technology building to support its STEM field programs. Everett is seeking $3.9 million for a learning resource center.

As relatively modest as those requests may appear, especially compared to the billions of dollars being discussed for K-12 education, advocates for the state’s community and technical colleges are concerned that both Inslee and the lawmakers could overlook higher education’s funding needs.

“We’re operating at a 2007 funding level,” said EvCC President David Beyer.

And, despite promises to the contrary, community colleges have lost revenue because of the tuition cuts that the Legislature passed in 2015. Beyer said the range of tuition cuts for higher education have been a boon to students, but he and EdCC President Jean Hernandez say the state hasn’t followed through with a promise to “backfill” the revenue some colleges lost to the tuition cuts.

Hernandez said she is grateful for the support and cooperation that community colleges are seeing from local officials, organizations such as Economic Alliance of Snohomish County, local school districts and industry, specifically noting the donation of high-tech equipment that the colleges use in training students.

But all of that local support has to be joined by financial support from the state that recognizes the role of community and technical colleges in educating and training students who are ready for the jobs that local industries will provide.

“We can’t be building a bridge to nowhere,” Beyer said.

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