Whatcom Community College and Washington’s community and technical college system are celebrating their 50th anniversaries this spring. Meanwhile, House and Senate budget negotiators are working hard to craft a two-year spending plan for our state. The two events are closely connected, because the decisions made in the final budget will decide the fate of Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges and their students in the years to come.
When Gov. Dan Evans signed the Community College Act in 1967, he opened the doors to higher education for all residents at a more affordable cost. He recognized that everyone deserves a chance at upward mobility just as employers need skilled workers in order to thrive. The legislation knitted colleges together under a unified system with a common vision. This allowed the college system to become a powerful force not just for local economies, but for regional industries and the state as a whole.
WCC was among the colleges established in 1967. As the need for higher education grew in our community, the college grew to meet it. Although we started as a college without walls – classes were held at leased buildings throughout the county – today, Whatcom has a beautiful 72-acre campus, serves 11,000 students, and is recognized as one of the top 150 community colleges in the state and nation.
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Today, about 381,000 students attend our state’s 34 community and technical colleges. Our graduates land well-paying jobs or transfer – often with scholarships – to universities. Yet, collectively, the state’s colleges are operating at 2007 funding levels when adjusted for inflation. This is damaging to our students, our state economy and our businesses that so desperately need qualified employees.
Consider this: Of the 740,000 job openings in the next five years, more than half will require a college certificate or degree. Employers, meanwhile, are having a hard time finding skilled employees at the mid-level of education — more than a high school diploma, but less than a bachelor’s degree. Community and technical colleges meet both needs and industry demand in real time.
A great example are WCC’s degrees and certificates that lead directly to employment in fields like computer science, health care and cybersecurity. We also help people who already have jobs stay up-to-date in their fields. Current employees need to refresh and update their skills as much as college students need to learn them. We serve everyone who wants to transform their lives through education.
That’s why the community and technical college system is asking the Legislature for a $200 million investment in the operating budget for all 34 colleges. The investment would help produce the diverse talent pool needed to fill thousands of jobs and grow Washington’s economy. These investments would ripple throughout Whatcom County’s economy. And, without these funds, WCC will not be able to as effectively serve our community, our students and our local businesses.
Equally important, our colleges need to keep buildings and training facilities up-to-date.
Today’s budget for maintenance and construction projects at community and technical colleges is 48 percent lower than the recession-era budget.
Our system is also asking the Legislature to reinvest in capital construction projects so students learn in modern, well-maintained buildings. The 25 projects on the request are listed in priority order. One of these projects is our Phyllis and Charles Self Learning Commons, which incorporates library, instructional technology, study spaces and tutoring centers. If approved, the Learning Commons will be WCC’s first state-funded capital project since 2004, during which time student enrollment has grown 16 percent.
Investments like these pay off many times over for Washington state. A new economic impact study shows that Washington’s community and technical colleges – including current and former students – add $20.5 billion to the state’s economy each year.
Decade after decade, our unified community and technical college system has offered real opportunities, to real people, in real time. Additional investments by the Legislature would ensure our colleges remain a strong and vital part of Washington’s economy in the years ahead.
Barbara Rofkar chairs the Whatcom Community College Board of Trustees.