GUEST - Community colleges can help meet jobs challenge

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It was an honor for me to represent Walla Walla Community College when the Aspen Institute named our college as one of the five "institutions of distinction" and awarded us a $100,000 prize. This was a great and defining moment for all of the more than 1,200 community and technical colleges in our nation.

The Aspen Institute prize, funded by national foundations, and announced by President Obama nearly a year ago, was created to focus attention on the important mission of community and technical colleges and to spotlight exemplary work in helping students achieve their dreams.

WWCC did not apply for the Aspen Prize; we were discovered through the Aspen Institute's research. This recognition is a great testament to the contributions of our faculty and staff and the support we receive from the communities we serve.

While we are pleased with this recognition, we should not be satisfied knowing how much more needs to be done to meet one of the biggest challenges of our time - jobs.

A study by Civic Enterprises, in cooperation with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others, looks at the jobs challenge from the perspective that "a great divide has emerged in the U.S. between the education and skills of the American work force and the needs of the nation's employers. Many of those looking for work do not have the skills required by companies looking to hire - resulting in high unemployment even as businesses desperately seek new talent."

The Lumina Foundation, one of the funding sponsors of the Aspen Prize, reports that at least 60 percent of the working age population will require a high quality degree or credential by 2018. Currently less than 40 percent of the U.S. population attains these credentials. In Washington, 42 percent of the state's working age adults hold at least a two-year degree.

The challenge of closing the skills gap is compounded by the fact our state has consistently experienced very high rates of in-migration of skilled workers.

Recently the pace of this in-migration has accelerated. In 2005, 34 states had a net in-migration of educated workers. Washington ranked second with 92 highly skilled workers imported per 100 bachelor's, master's and Ph.D.'s awarded by four-year colleges and universities in our state.

Yes, we face an educational attainment crisis. Other countries are increasing their educational attainment levels much faster. We must strive to award more degrees and other high quality credentials. Failure to do so will result in a loss of jobs, lower wages and a lower standard of living.

Can the community and technical college system help meet this challenge?

I believe our community and technical colleges are capable of being "game changers" at significantly increasing attainment rates and closing the skills gap. During these tough economic times, we have used innovative strategies to align our programs with the needs of the labor market and increase our productivity in delivering programs.

We have achieved significant efficiencies, expanded use of e-learning and online student services, and are pursuing faster pathways for students to achieve degrees and other credentials without sacrificing quality.

We are striving for more collaboration between campus-based and work-based learning and more collaboration among K-12, community and technical colleges, and four-year colleges and universities. We are also expanding transfer education opportunities as more students choose community colleges for academic and financial reasons in pursuit of a four-year degree.

To close the skills gap, we must increase enrollment opportunities and completion rates of displaced workers, returning veterans, and disadvantaged youths and adults who may have dropped out. If we don't, the American Dream will become a nightmare for individuals we leave behind.

It is important we make smart decisions. The Aspen Institute recognized WWCC for high degree completion rates, transfer rates, and employment rates for our graduates with salaries over twice the level of those employed without a credential, and close alignment of programs with the needs of the economy.

A recent economic impact study shows students aren't the only ones who reap financial benefits from their education; we all do. WWCC and our former students add $265.15 million annually to our economy. For every state dollar invested in WWCC, $3.20 in tax revenues is returned to the state. The region also experiences reduced crime rates, improved health care, and reduced welfare and unemployment, demonstrating that an investment in education is an investment in the greater good.

WWCC has made painful budget adjustments that have eliminated 35 positions and reduced the scope of programs and services. The Legislature is faced with a nearly impossible task of balancing a budget this session, which means more of our programs and services may be at risk.

Technology and the knowledge economy have changed the competitive landscape on a global scale. If we are to compete, we must invest in a skilled work force. The need for middle skilled and highly skilled workers is growing and the need for unskilled workers is declining. If we are to compete, more students must complete degree and certificate programs.

I believe it is worth the sacrifice today to provide the opportunity for our children and grandchildren to have a shot at the American Dream. And we should remember, when it comes to the health of our economy, we are all enrolled in the fate of our higher education system.

Steve VanAusdle is president of Walla Walla Community College.

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