The unveiling this week of plans for an eventual Clark County campus in Ridgefield serves as a reminder of the important role community colleges will play in the future of the state.
While lawmakers next year will ponder how to pay for basic education from kindergarten through high school, they also must pay heed to the state’s 34 community and technical colleges. Such institutions are an important conduit between the populace and the good-paying, career-path jobs that are expected to be burgeoning throughout the state.
The Washington Roundtable recently reported that employers are expecting 740,000 job openings over the next five years, with a large percentage of those being the kind of high-level openings the state should be working to create. Washington’s long-held expertise in high-tech and innovative manufacturing jobs has generated a bustling economy that is the envy of many states throughout the country.
Now it is up to the public and elected representatives to create a climate that helps the state’s educational system provide workers who are qualified and capable to fill those jobs. Two-year colleges, which serve nearly 400,000 students in Washington, can play a crucial role in preparing those workers through training that allows graduates to fill positions or move on to seek a four-year degree.
Because of that, the latest development in Clark College’s expansion represents an exciting opportunity for the college to better serve students in Southwest Washington and employers through the state. College officials, along with representatives from engineering firm MacKay Sposito, unveiled plans for a campus on the east side of Ridgefield, near the junction of Interstate 5 and Pioneer Street.
The campus will be built on a former dairy farm on land donated by Hank and Bernice Boschma, and the site was expanded with other donations and the college’s purchase of an additional parcel. The plan is for construction to begin on an initial 70,000-square-foot building in 2019, with an expected timeline of a new building every eight years or so. In other words, it will take plenty of time for the campus to resemble a campus.
For now, all that college leaders have is a vision, but it is a vision that should be recognized and embraced by leaders throughout the state. While lawmakers last year approved tuition cuts for the state’s colleges, both four-year and two-year, they fell short on promises to backfill the resulting revenue reduction for community colleges. The action was beneficial for students, making college more affordable for thousands of people, but short-changing the budgets of the colleges defeats the intended purpose. If schools are unable to provide students with the education they need, the impact is felt by the state’s workforce and employers.
Washington’s community and technical colleges are requesting from the Legislature a $200 million two-year operating budget and $338 million for capital construction. That is a lot of money, but it would be easy for lawmakers to overlook as they ponder the billions needed for K-12 education. Lawmakers must view education from a holistic standpoint, addressing the needs of primary and secondary education but recognizing that higher education is necessary to complete the picture.
At all levels of schooling, education must be regarded as an investment by the state that pays long-term dividends through a robust economy. Clark College and similar institutions play an important role in making that investment worthwhile.