As members of Whatcom Community College's Board of Trustees, we're proud of Whatcom's academic excellence and innovation. As advocates of higher education, we're equally grateful that Whatcom County is home to four outstanding institutions of higher education -- Whatcom Community College, Western Washington University, Northwest Indian College and Bellingham Technical College. This strong mix of two- and four-year institutions enables our community to serve students from a wide variety of backgrounds. It also uniquely positions us to prepare a globally competitive workforce. This is particularly true in the case of STEM education - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
As trustees, our job is to ensure WCC is meeting the needs of our community and our more than 11,000 students not only now but in the future. Our research tells us Washington faces an alarming shortage of people trained in the STEM fields. We need to fill jobs in research, engineering and other professions that require four-year degrees, but critical shortages also exist for skilled workers in STEM fields such as health care and computer technology. Community and technical colleges provide pathways for both groups of students.
Community and technical colleges serve 60 percent of students enrolled in Washington's public colleges and universities - making community and technical colleges the state's largest system of higher education. Nearly 40 percent of bachelor degree graduates in Washington start at a community or technical college.
For example, 34 percent of engineering majors enrolled at Washington's four-year public universities transferred from a community or technical college with at least 40 college credits or a degree. Most had a science degree or heavy concentrations of science and math credits. At Whatcom -- where 83 percent of degree and certificate seeking students are pursuing transfer degrees -- we are seeing tremendous interest and enrollment in STEM areas, notably pre-engineering (classes in pre-engineering, math, chemistry and physics), computer information systems, and health professions.
Professional technical programs at community colleges are a proven solution for our STEM-based economy. We trained computer techs when the dot.coms exploded, and nurses as the baby boomers aged. We are able to adapt nimbly to changing job markets and their specific skill sets. Our graduates successfully secure jobs -- 84 percent of Winter/Spring 2012 professional technical graduate survey respondents reported being employed in their field.
This success rate is due partly to Whatcom's outstanding instruction. For example, Whatcom is one of only 24 community colleges in the entire nation to be recognized as a National Center of Academic Excellence in Information Assurance Education by the Department of Homeland Security and National Security Agency. The distinction affirms the quality of WCC's Computer Information Systems and Information Security program and certificates.
Reinforcing the program's excellence, WCC is a member of the CyberWatch West consortium that is sharing a $3 million National Science Foundation grant to establish the West Coast cybersecurity region. WCC's CIS Program Coordinator Corrinne Sande is the center's only co-principal investigator in Washington. Additionally, WCC recently received a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop four-year cybersecurity degree pathways to WWU and the University of Washington. We are on the cutting edge of this critical field, where thousands of skilled workers will be needed in the next few years.
WCC's nationally accredited and acclaimed health professions programs continue to experience remarkable success. Nursing, physical therapist assistant and massage practitioner graduates consistently far exceed national average pass rates on professional licensure exams. Of WCC's 2012 nursing, physical therapist assistant and massage practitioner graduates, 100 percent passed their licensure examinations. The programs maintain graduation rates around 95 percent or higher. Employment figures for Whatcom's physical therapist assistant, medical assisting and nursing graduates are 95 percent.
Whatcom's new Health Professions Education Center, opening this fall, will ensure continued excellence. High-quality instructional spaces and state-of-the-art laboratories will prepare students with the technical and critical thinking skills they need to succeed in this demanding, fast-changing field.
Our sister institutions can point to similar successes. As community members, we are proud of - and encourage support of - each of the institutions of higher education that call Whatcom County home. Working together, we'll prepare our children and fellow residents for the jobs of the future, creating the thriving, well-educated community in which we all want to live.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Tim Douglas and Sue Cole are members of the board of trustees at Whatcom Community College in Bellingham. Douglas served as mayor of Bellingham and in Western Washington University administration. Cole is the public affairs director of The Markets.