Washington’s community colleges are still struggling to recover from recession-era budget cuts, yet offer a solid path to many middle-skill jobs that pay good wages and are in high demand, says the outgoing director of the community-college system.
Marty Brown, who became executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges in 2012, also says the college system needs to do a better job of publicizing its best programs.
Brown announced his retirement in December. He’ll leave in June; the search is getting underway for a replacement.
When he got the job, Brown’s experience was as a budget guru and a policy expert for two Democratic governors, Gary Locke and Chris Gregoire. He didn’t have a background in education.
Now that he’s spent four years steeped in higher-education policy, he says the state needs what the community colleges offer — and needs to do a better job of funding them.
“Our state obviously needs bachelor’s degrees, but it also needs lots of middle-skill jobs,” which require training beyond just a high-school degree, he said. “We need more truck drivers, we need more nurses, we need folks who build things.”
Brown said 12 percent of community-college students already have a bachelor’s degree. They return to school either because they can’t find a job or want to try something new that involves working with their hands.
The schools are much more nimble than he realized when he first took the job, Brown said. The 34 community and technical colleges are able to quickly roll out new classes and teach in specialty areas when local businesses ask for help training the workforce. He described the schools as complex and diverse — “They’re so different, and yet they all work together.”
During Brown’s tenure, the system expanded the number of applied baccalaureate degrees it offers from 12 to 75. More than half the colleges now offer an applied baccalaureate degree.
Applied baccalaureates have a specific focus, often technical in nature, and usually dovetail with a two-year associate degree. For example, Centralia College offers an applied bachelor’s in diesel technology — a focus that prepares people who already have a two-year degree in diesel technology or related fields to become managers.
“If you want to extend your career and move into management, there are tons of ways to do that in our system,” Brown said. “Many, many employers in our state want their employees to have that kind of flexibility — so they can help run the business after working in the business.”
Washington has one of the nation’s larger community-college systems, with an annual enrollment in 2016 of around 381,000, although that’s down by at least 25,000 students from 2008, when the recession began, Brown said. The schools educate more than half the students enrolled in higher education in Washington.
Enrollment has fallen in recent years because people often forgo college when the economy is strong, and because tuition at Washington community colleges is now closely comparable to that of the state’s regional colleges, after a legislative decision in 2015 to cut four-year college tuition more than community college tuition.
Brown said one of the issues that needs fixing in the system is faculty pay, which he called inadequate — especially for adjuncts, or part-time faculty who work on contract. Brown said it’s becoming harder to hire adjunct faculty, especially in fast-evolving industries, because instructors make far more money working for private industry.
“In many cases, our faculty don’t make as much as K-12 teachers, and that’s just not right,” he said.