Opinion

Bellevue College; minor change means major potential

Changing our name to Bellevue College, from Bellevue Community College, required only a minor edit. Yet the change embodies a major and potentially transformational expansion of our service to the community: our baccalaureate program in a vital health care field.

In my first years as president here, local executives told me that they urgently needed more workers with information technology skills. We responded with IT programs that earned national recognition.

More recently, with critical workforce shortages besetting health care providers, we doubled the number of health science training programs that we offer.

And in fall 2007, we responded in an entirely new way to one of the many voids in our state’s higher education system: We launched our first bachelor’s degree program, targeting the critical lack of radiation and imaging professionals with bachelor’s degree credentials.

It is the success of these students that has led to the decision to change our name.

Because community colleges are generally thought of as awarding associate degrees or two-year credentials, our baccalaureate students — the first 18 of whom graduate this June — will receive bachelor’s degree diplomas from “Bellevue College” to signify their accomplishment.

The name change does not indicate any lessening of our commitment to serve the greater Bellevue/Seattle area as a community college.

All of our programs remain essential services to our community and vital parts of our college’s mission that we will not abandon — our programs that provide the first two years of a four-year degree; our 90 different work-related degree and certificate programs; our adult education courses for those not yet ready for college or have yet to acquire the English fluency they need; the lifelong learning opportunities provided by our continuing education and the door to higher education that we hold open for everyone who is eligible.

But serious educational voids, such as experienced by the health care industry, plague many other types of businesses, too.

Prior to the current recession, 25,000 Washington businesses reported that they could not find enough job applicants with bachelor’s degrees.

Even worse, the same state survey found that the problem was growing faster in King County than in any other Western Washington region.

There simply is not enough space in state-supported bachelor’s degree programs in our region to meet the needs of employers or job-seekers.

The state Higher Education Coordinating (HEC) Board reports that Washington urgently needs 5,600 new slots in bachelor’s degree programs right now, and must expand capacity by 27 percent over the next decade to meet the demand and rebuild our state’s strength versus those with whom we compete for economic growth.

The gap is so wide, the board says, that our universities won’t be able to fill it entirely by themselves.

The legislative proposals which I noted in my last column — introduced by state Sen. Fred Jarrett (D-Mercer Island) and state Rep. Marcie Maxwell (D-Renton) — authorizing Bellevue College to award more bachelor’s degrees, ultimately were not forwarded by their respective committees for a vote by their full chambers.

However, we found greater enthusiasm in Olympia and among the general public than we ever anticipated in this first airing of the concept.

While the graduation of our first 18 baccalaureate students marks a turning point in their lives and a good first step in redressing some of health care’s most urgent workforce needs, it could, if the state allows it, expand into a substantial component in the compound solution that it will take to fill our state’s higher education gaps.

Congratulations, Class of 2009, from Bellevue College!

Jean Floten is the president of Bellevue College.

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