Two-year colleges are engines of upward mobility

It’s back to school for Washington college students, and thanks to the state Legislature’s smart reinvestment in two-year colleges this year, the American Dream is within reach for many.

Along with their backpacks and books, students carry the knowledge that higher education is the path to a better future. For 60 percent of state college students, that path starts at the doors of a community or technical college. Last fall, 57 percent of our students were women, 38 percent were students of color and our median age was 26.

The link between higher education and prosperity is direct and powerful. Community and technical colleges offer both the lower cost and high access to make it possible.

Each year, nearly 420,000 students attend two-year colleges to train for well-paying careers, start work on a four-year degree, or update their skills and knowledge. Our students pay about one-third to half the tuition as those at four-year universities. They get an outstanding education while reducing student loan debt.

Those who transfer to a university do just as well as the freshmen who start there. Nearly 40 percent of bachelor degree graduates and about 34 percent of engineering majors in Washington start at two-year colleges.

Students who enroll for job training get a fast entry into well-paying career fields like aerospace, cyber-security, nursing or clean energy. Shortly after graduation, community and technical college workforce graduates have comparable employment rates and earnings to bachelor’s degree graduates.

At career midpoint, the average annual income of the typical associate-degree graduate is 35 percent more than someone with a high school diploma alone. Two-year colleges are engines that power people into the middle class and beyond.

Our open door policy gives everyone in Washington a fair shot at enrolling in college and improving their lives if they have the drive and determination. Five of our community colleges were recently named in the top 50 two-year colleges in the nation by Washington Monthly Magazine: Tacoma, Grays Harbor, Cascadia, Green River and Highline. And Walla Walla Community College was recognized as the best in the country by the Aspen Institute.

Thanks to College Spark Washington, 16 of our colleges are part of “Achieving the Dream,” a national initiative focused on helping low-income students and students of color succeed. Our colleges are also proud to partner with some of the finest universities in the world: Washington’s four-year universities.

Just as Washington’s residents need college experience so they can climb the economic ladder, businesses need skilled employees to grow and prosper. By partnering with local employers, our colleges are uniquely positioned to get training programs up and running in months, not years. Students get the training employers need and then land good jobs in the community.

By 2019, two-thirds of all job openings in Washington will require at least one year of college, with thousands requiring education offered specifically at community and technical colleges.

College students aren’t the only ones who reap financial benefits; we all do. Students who get the education and training needed to land good jobs bring their skills and purchasing power back to our local communities. Our students become the employees, entrepreneurs, consumers and taxpayers who keep our economy humming; they raise the quality of life for all of us.

With our mix of job-training programs, degrees and classes that transfer to four-year universities, community and technical colleges fill an important niche in higher education.

It took several overtime sessions for the Legislature to finally strike a budget agreement, but the result was positive and a wise legislative investment in our community and technical colleges – a smart choice for those seeking the American Dream.

Marty Brown is executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.