Opinion

Bellevue CC can help fill state bachelor degree gap

Jean Floten
Education Matters

Did you know that just before the recession hit, 25,000 Washington businesses reported problems finding enough job applicants with bachelor’s degrees?

This distressing fact came to light in the state Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board’s 2007 employer survey.

Another disturbing finding: hiring difficulties reduced these businesses’ productivity, output and growth — setbacks that hurt us all because they slow the broader economy and job market.

The data also contained a wake-up call for King County: the problem was worsening at a faster rate here than in any other area except the Tri-Cities.

Why should Washington experience such problems, when our universities are among the best in the nation?

The answer is, there is not enough space to go around in our state-supported baccalaureate programs.

Each year in the central Puget Sound region alone, up to 6,000 students earn a transferable degree from a local community college but do not continue on to a four-year institution.

Many discontinue their education voluntarily, but a large number, once turned down by the University of Washington, simply have nowhere else they can afford to go. Place-bound by jobs and family responsibilities, these individuals do not have the freedom to pick up and move to another city.

These are good, solid students — with 2.5 to 3.75 GPAs — yet they are in effect abandoned by our higher ed system.

The bottom line is, thousands are barred from their best opportunity to build better lives and achieve their dreams, while as a state we continue to hamstring parts of our economy by failing to produce a sufficiently educated workforce.

Analysis by the state Higher Education Coordinating (HEC) Board indicates that Washington urgently needs 5,600 new slots in bachelor’s degree programs right now and must expand baccalaureate capacity by 27 percent over the next decade if we are to meet the demand from employers and residents.

The problem casts a broad and ominous shadow over our state’s economic future. In terms of bachelor’s degrees awarded per capita, Washington lags behind all but one of our toughest economic competitors, considered to be the states of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Virginia.

Nationwide, we rank only 36th.

To secure Washington’s future, the HEC Board urges state and educational leaders to consider all possible ways, including non-traditional ones, to increase baccalaureate capacity. While our universities intend to expand, even their most aggressive plans, the Board says, won’t be sufficient.

State Senator Fred Jarrett (D-Mercer Island) and State Representative Marcie Maxwell (D-Renton) have responded by filing identical bills in the state legislature, seeking to expand academic opportunities by authorizing Bellevue Community College to award more bachelor’s degrees.

Building on the success of our baccalaureate program in radiation and imaging sciences, the Jarrett-Maxwell bill will lead to new bachelor’s programs designed specifically to meet the most urgent requirements of employers, thus giving local residents what they need to land the jobs that have been going to out-of-state workers.

The Jarrett-Maxwell proposal requires no new funding at this time. In fact, it offers one of the few opportunities which the legislature has to advance higher education this year, despite the state’s dire financial situation.

At a time when employers and students will need more bachelor’s degree capacity, we need to seriously consider:

Are we going to abandon place-bound individuals in our communities, without adequate opportunities to complete their education?

Are we going to let our economy suffer simply because we don’t provide enough space in our baccalaureate programs to appropriately fill out our workforce for the modern workplace?

It’s an issue of equity and fairness, and also one of economics. We all have a stake in the shortage of baccalaureate capacity. How, then, can we overlook any opportunity to resolve it?

Jean Floten is the president of Bellevue Community College.

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