Schools like SPSCC need help from lawmakers

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Article from The Olympian
The Olympian Editorial Board

As Washington lawmakers try to find a way to fully fund K-12 public schools for the first time, it’s important they do not sacrifice other valuable programs to get there.

It’s not overstatement that our economy depends on smart decisions. This is no truer than with higher education, which plays a key role in training workers for the employment fields that don’t have enough newly qualified people to fill expected openings.

The Washington Roundtable, which represents chief executives of businesses in the Northwest, and the Boston Consulting Group teamed up on a report late last year that predicts Washington will see 740,000 job openings over the next five years — through 2021.

“The majority of job opportunities — particularly those that will support upward mobility and good quality of life — will be filled with workers who have postsecondary education or training,” the Roundtable reported. “Recognizing the need to prepare our kids for these opportunities, the Washington Roundtable has set an ambitious goal: By 2030, 70 percent of Washington students will earn a postsecondary credential by the age of 26.”

That is ambitious. Only 31 percent of students do that today. And it can’t happen without new state investments in the system.

Marty Brown, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, told the Seattle Times recently that the need goes beyond four-year degrees in high-tech, engineering and math fields — in other words, “lots of middle-skill jobs.” As Brown put it: “We need more truck drivers, we need more nurses, we need folks who build things.”

Olympia’s South Puget Sound Community College is among the colleges key to getting workers ready for those jobs.

“There is no way we can fill all of the jobs at the current funding rate,” said Tim Stokes, president of SPSCC, in a meeting with The Olympian Editorial Board last year.

Lawmakers need to remember there is evidence that investments in public education are repaid many times over. For example, a study done for SPSCC last year showed the college provided $44.6 million in direct added income to the Thurston County community during the 2014-15 budget year and supported 776 jobs.

Adding in the impact of graduates who stay in the community, get jobs or start businesses, the study calculated another $269.4 million in economic value and 4,447 supported jobs. The report by Economic Modeling Associates International also estimated that college graduates with associate of arts degrees earned $7,700 a year more than high-school graduates.

The Legislature took worthy steps two years ago to lower tuition, which makes college more affordable. Further steps are needed to help lift the educational level of adult Washingtonians in a way that fits the evolving economy.

Stokes and Brown say colleges need funds to increase faculty pay. They also need more funded slots in the State Need Grant program. The grants assist students from low-income households, but funding covers only 70,000 grantees and a waiting list has at least 23,000 more names.

Gov. Jay Inslee proposed to boost funding to cover 84,000 students in his December budget proposal for the 2017-19 cycle. The expansion costs $116.3 million.

Another area of need is the “Guided Pathways” program for advising students. Inslee proposed adding $8.5 million to pay for 66 new adviser positions at the state’s 34 community and technical colleges. Advisers can help first-generation college students stay in school and complete their degrees, according to Stokes.

Funding these programs is vital for students and the regional economy.