Op-Ed: It’s time for the Legislature to invest in training and education beyond high school

By: Kimberly Perry, president of Bellingham Technical College, Kathi Hiyane-Brown, president of Whatcom Community College, and Sabah Randhawa, president of Western Washington University, in conjunction with Tim Stokes, chair of the Washington Association of Community and Technical Colleges Legislative and Public Information Committee and president of South Puget Sound Community College

Lawmakers gathered in Olympia on Monday for the start of the 2019 legislative session. Their job this year won’t be easy. This is the year the Legislature must write the next two-year state budget, weighing many competing and important demands in the process.

Fortunately, there is one thing on which everyone can agree: people need good, well-paying jobs, and the majority of those jobs require training and education beyond high school. This is true across the state, whether legislators represent urban or rural areas and whether they are Democrats or Republicans.

Ask most Washingtonians what makes them worry at night. Chances are, their top worries are about economic security – food, housing, jobs, paychecks, bills, health care, college and retirement. The best way to ensure a pathway to secure living is by attaining a higher education, whether it’s a two-year degree, a four-year degree or professional certification.

One of the most powerful ways to address all these concerns is for the Legislature to prioritize higher education funding next session – for students at community and technical colleges and universities alike. According to the Washington Roundtable, there will be 740,000 job openings by 2021, and more than half will require education past high school. At the same time, people need a range of pathways to those jobs, including employer certificates, training in trades, two-year degrees, four-year degrees, and apprenticeships. Over their lifetime, a graduate with a two-year degree will earn 1.24 times what a high school grad alone will earn, and individuals with a bachelor’s degree can expect to make 66 percent more than folks with just a high school diploma, according to a report by The College Board.

We know that the best on-ramp to careers runs right through our colleges and universities. We are affordable, serve all kinds of students, and are connected to both local employers, and industries.

There are 34 community and technical colleges across Washington state, big and small, urban and rural. Whether students are 16 or 60, and whatever their background, we have quality academic, training and support programs to help our students move forward.

Equally important, we are the primary gateway to education past high school for students who are the first in their families to go to college. Many of these students would never have attempted college without the community or technical college option to help them build skills and manage the cost.

At Bellingham Technical College, Whatcom Community College, and Western Washington University, between 33-36 percent of our students are the first generation in their family to attend college, and that experience will change the trajectory of not only the lives of those students, but the lives of their families and the ways they can contribute to the communities around them.

Our students become the operators who safely run our refineries, the nurses and health care workers who care for us, the scientists who develop new clean energy technologies, the teachers who instruct the next generation, the cybersecurity specialists who defend our digital assets, the entrepreneurs who start their own businesses, the accountants who file our taxes, the technicians who fix our cars, equipment and appliances, the environmental planners who address the effects of climate change, the technologists who engineer the products of the future, and the students who transfer on to 4-year colleges and universities.

Last year, the Legislature took steps to begin to fully fund the State Need Grant, which helps low-income students pay for college without taking out loans. We encourage the Legislature to continue this momentum so all students who qualify will receive state financial aid.

Washington’s public universities and community and technical colleges are also seeking funding to support three other key areas for students: guided career pathways, training in high-demand careers and exceptional instruction.

The guided career pathways approach is a nationally recognized way to help students graduate on time and with purpose, saving them time and money in the process. The idea is to help students choose a course of study earlier and to organize classes in a way that makes it easy for them to take the right classes in the right order. Students get clear road maps to get to their career goals, whether they want to go immediately into a career after graduating from a two-year college or go to a four-year university for bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Advisors work closely with students to identify their path, keep them on it, and help them graduate sooner.

Our students need more access to training for jobs in high-demand fields that pay well and elevate our economy. Employers throughout the state will need these students to fill critical gaps in our workforce. These include jobs in healthcare, aerospace, advanced manufacturing, IT, cybersecurity, nursing, behavioral health and a myriad of other positions around the state.

Of course, none of this can happen without outstanding instruction. We need to attract and keep the exceptional faculty who bring lessons to life for our students. To do this, we need the Legislature to provide competitive compensation for the dedicated faculty and staff who serve our students.

Good jobs are out there. A new report by Washington STEM found that the Northwest Washington region is home to growing maritime, health care, engineering, and advanced manufacturing industries, which have 2,096 annual projected openings combined over the next five years. With adequate funding from the state Legislature, WWU, WCC and BTC can help ensure that our students are ready to step into those positions, filling local jobs with local talent.

As Legislators set their sights on writing the next state budget, their focus should be on funding education beyond high school. Community and technical colleges and our four-year universities create common ground — and are change-makers for public good — for the people of Washington state.

Note: Post has been updated. 

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