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Here's why two-year colleges like BTC may be doing better than people thought

Culinary students Ben Garding, left, Anastasia Lagutochkin and Colin Reed practice making their competition dishes at Bellingham Technical College, on Feb. 27, 2015.
Culinary students Ben Garding, left, Anastasia Lagutochkin and Colin Reed practice making their competition dishes at Bellingham Technical College, on Feb. 27, 2015. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Nearly half of all students who enter Washington’s community colleges earn a degree or certificate in eight years, or transfer to another school before getting a degree from their community college, new federal data shows.

And two Bellingham colleges – Bellingham Technical College and Whatcom Community College – do well at getting their students to the finish line, with rates of 65 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

That’s in sharp contrast to what’s usually reported by the federal data center known as the National Center for Education Statistics, which shows a three-year completion average of about 20 percent, for public community colleges.

But the old number took a narrower look – only counting students who were attending college for the first time as full-time students, and those who finished within three years.

The old rates also didn’t take into account the number of students who transfer to a four-year college before finishing a community-college degree.

67 Percentage of Bellingham Technical College students who earned a degree or certificate withing eight years, well above the state average of 43 percent.

The new data was recently published on the federal College Navigator website, and it looks at all students who earned a degree or certificate, regardless of whether they enrolled full-time. The new analysis also looks at completion rates over eight years rather than three – a nod to the fact that it can take much longer to complete a degree when a student is enrolled part-time.

Washington’s State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) compiled the numbers for all the state’s 34 community and technical colleges, and found that the average eight-year completion rate in Washington is 43 percent, said Darby Kaikkonen, SBCTC policy research director.

And when students who transferred out before earning a degree are added, the number rises to 48 percent. (It’s not necessary to finish an associate degree before transferring to begin a bachelor’s.)

That’s much higher than the state’s 3-year completion rate for first-time, full time students, which is 29 percent.

Renton Tech, at 74 percent, had the highest completion rate in the state, followed by Bellingham Tech with 67 percent, Walla Walla Technical College at 61 percent and Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland with 55 percent.

Kaikkonen said technical colleges do well because many of their students are earning one-year certificates, rather than two-year associate degrees.

In analyzing four-year colleges, graduation rates are often an essential component of rankings of quality – the top schools often also achieve top graduation rates. But Laura McDowell, a spokeswoman for the SBCTC, said the completion rates aren’t necessarily a stand-in for quality at the community-college level.

Because the degree programs differ so much from school to school, she recommended choosing a college based on whether it offers the degree field you’re interested in – not based on its completion rate.

Top 10: Community college graduation rates

New data shows the percentage of Washington community college students who received a degree or certificate eight years after starting college. When students who transferred to another school are included, the rate is higher. Here are the top 10 schools:

College

8-year graduation rate

8-year graduation/transfer rate

Renton Technical College

72%

74%

Bellingham Technical College

65%

67%

Walla Walla Community College

58%

61%

Lake Washington Institute of Technology

52%

55%

Lower Columbia College

51%

54%

Whatcom Community College

47%

54%

Clover Park Technical College

50%

54%

Spokane Community College

51%

54%

Shoreline Community College

48%

53%

Centralia College

49%

52%

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