By John W. Walstrum, president of Clover Park Technical College
This Harvard study cites what many of us already know: The path toward the middle class must include some post-secondary education. The 70,000 students attending Bates and Clover Park technical colleges and Pierce and Tacoma community colleges don’t need convincing that they need cutting-edge, applicable skills to ensure their success in attaining positions in the post-recession economy.
High school dropouts, graduates, displaced workers, over-50 workers and even retirees are rushing to our colleges to prepare for their personal economic recovery and a chance to realize their American dream.
In Pierce County, more than 40 percent of residents receive some form of public assistance. The barriers for them to achieve not only self-sufficiency but a more solid and comfortable lifestyle are insurmountable without some form of occupational certificate, apprenticeship training or associate’s degree.
Their pathway toward the middle class has been derailed by this lack of opportunity and is an additional strain on our nonprofit agencies and local and state governments.
The pathway for students who are able to achieve an associate’s degree is clearly marked. Community and technical college graduates earn 73 percent more annually than those peers who did not complete high school ($42,000 vs. $24,300).
Opportunities available at local two-year colleges include: career training, academic transfer preparation, apprenticeship, basic skills, high school completion, English as a Second Language and noncredit continuing education. All are important components to our colleges’ offerings.
For example, when Fiona Bao was accepted into the I-BEST program at Tacoma Community College, it was the end of a long journey and the beginning of a new one. As an immigrant from China, she was able to enter the I-BEST Accounting Office Associate Program for students who want to improve English language skills and earn a college-level certificate or two-year degree. She graduated in 2010, the outstanding student in her program.
Fiona is now working on her accounting transfer degree, with her sights set on a bachelor’s from the University of Washington.
“I want to become a true professional and team member as an accountant. After that I would like to obtain my CPA.” She says I-BEST gave her the opportunity she needed to succeed. “Without my instructors, without my adviser, without the TCC staff, I would not have achieved this much.”
Yet during our state’s economic crisis, our colleges are struggling to keep the doors open to those students who need us now. The Legislature is finalizing additional cuts to the budgets of community and technical colleges (up to 30 percent in three years) while, again, increasing tuition for students who are suddenly unemployed in the economic downturn or who work full-time and are struggling to pay basic bills.
Granted, the state has dire budgetary concerns. However, the graduates that colleges train will provide an influx of much-needed cash into state coffers and free up unemployment benefits they were reliant on, which will help pull the state out of its downward spiral.
The state’s community and technical college system is a means to lift individuals out of poverty and help them find their way into the middle class where they can lead productive lives, which, in turn, can bring life back to an ailing state budget.
The economic prosperity of our nation and the preservation of the middle class depend, to some degree, upon whether or not community and technical colleges can provide the opportunity for more than five million Americans who come to our campuses each year to succeed.
Now is not the time to allow potholes and detours along the pathway to prosperity. Now is the time to strongly support our community and technical colleges to widen this pathway, for the sake of our state and our nation.
John W. Walstrum is president of Clover Park Technical College.