Whatcom Community College exemplifies community-based higher education

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 15, 2014 

During April the nation celebrates Community College Month, and there is much to celebrate. In their brief presence (most are less than 50 years old), community colleges have become an important segment of American higher education and have provided their communities valuable, indeed critical, resources. For the past several years, nearly half the students graduating from universities nationwide began their studies at community and technical colleges such as Whatcom Community College in Bellingham.

In the early years - in the 1960s and '70s - most community colleges were established to provide a second chance for high school graduates unqualified for admission to a traditional college. Today - thanks to a focus on effective teaching that meets students' needs, transferability of courses and programs to four-year schools, and partnerships with local industry leaders - community colleges are a first choice for many students.

Whatcom Community College is a strong model of community college success. Beginning in 1967 as a "college without walls," the college was committed to operating without a centralized campus; classes met in borrowed space across Whatcom County. Eventually a campus became essential for effectively serving our community, and we have developed one of the most attractive campuses in the state. In recent years, the college has annually served more than 10,000 county residents in an array of 17 associate degree programs and more than 30 professional technical certificates and degrees. We continue to serve the traditional population of students seeking preparation for college, and have become a viable option for very capable students, including university graduates seeking new credentials or career pathways. A high proportion of our graduates transfer to universities and enter employment, and they perform well when they move elsewhere.

The college also helps to power Whatcom County's economic engine. We're a significant employer; 428 local residents serve students in faculty and staff positions. In addition, college administrators and faculty stay closely connected with workforce and community leaders to gauge what programs should be added or expanded and to ensure curriculum exceeds industry standards. As a result, local businesses are guaranteed the qualified workforce they need to grow and thrive.

The quality of our programs and graduates has been consistently confirmed. The prestigious Aspen Institute has twice rated WCC among the nation's top community colleges. In respected national studies, WCC is well above the national average in key criteria: student academic success, completion, transfer and certification pass rates in the health professions. WCC is an acknowledged leader in technology education; this fall we opened a new Health Professions Education Center, a state-of-the-art facility to prepare students entering nursing, physical therapist assistant and other health professions. We are now the lead institution for CyberWatch West, a regional cybersecurity education consortium funded by the National Science Foundation, one of only four regional centers nationwide dedicated to cybersecurity education. We also are an "Achieving the Dream" school, recipient of a prestigious grant to develop and model practices increasing student success.

This year we will begin reconstruction of our pavilion building, which will provide students a modern, spacious fitness center, exercise and dance studio space, and an enclosed running track. We are currently designing the largest addition to the college thus far: the Phyllis and Charles Self Learning Commons, a new building that will transform the campus with a centralized learning "hub" to house the library collection and student academic support services. The learning commons will provide essential technology services for learning in the 21st century and will become the vibrant educational and social "heart" of the WCC of the future.

We at WCC look back on our journey and take pride in our accomplishments; our commitment to effective teaching and student success has shaped the college as an appealing option for students seeking a quality education, in preparation for university study or for entering the workplace. We are pleased to be at the focus of a month that acknowledges and celebrates the achievements of colleges like ours.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ron Leatherbarrow has been vice president for instruction at Whatcom Community College since 2008 and has worked at community colleges for 42 years. He holds bachelors and masters degrees in English and American civilization from the State University of New York at Buffalo and a doctorate in English language and literature from the University of Maryland. For more information online, go to whatcom.ctc.edu.

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