Students at Clark College and WSU Vancouver have big dreams for their futures. They are on track to become engineers who create software and design buildings, nurses who care for sick people and teachers who support the next generation of learners. The jobs that await these students in a post-pandemic economy share a common feature – they demand a post-high school credential, such as a degree, apprenticeship or certificate.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made credentials even more essential, especially for the people who are carrying the brunt of this economic crisis: communities of color, young workers and those without education past high school. More than half of Black and Latinx households nationwide reported employment loss due to the pandemic, and about two-thirds of workers claiming unemployment in Washington in November did not have a credential.
As Southwest Washington prepares for recovery, Clark College and WSU Vancouver will have important roles in workforce development, helping local communities become more resilient and retooling to meet the new needs of our post-pandemic world.
In this new environment, Washington can do better by its students — including traditional age students and those returning to higher education after years in the workforce. We believe there are important steps Washington can take that will bolster students on their pathways to college and career, while supporting our state’s economic recovery.
First, we urge the Legislature to avoid repeating the past. During the Great Recession, lawmakers slashed funding for higher education and shifted much of the cost onto students with double-digit tuition increases. Meanwhile, colleges and universities were forced to cut programs and services, slowing students’ progress toward graduation. Washington’s colleges and universities have still not fully recovered from those cuts. In fact, most returned to pre-recession funding levels — in real dollars unadjusted for inflation — just last year, a decade after the recession.
The Legislature took a historic step in 2019 to turn the situation around, which leads to our second recommendation: Protect investments made through the Workforce Education Investment Act (HB 2158). Among other things, the Workforce Education Investment Act created the Washington College Grant, which makes financial aid a guarantee and extends aid to more low- and middle-income families. The Washington College Grant does not need to be repaid, meaning it’s the difference that makes it possible for thousands of students to receive education or training and not be saddled with debt.
The Workforce Education Investment Act also provides funding for academic advising, mental health counselors, student services and other support programs that remove barriers to graduation for students, especially students from low-income backgrounds, students of color and students who are the first in their families to go to college.
Finally, as the leaders of Southwest Washington’s two higher education institutions, we urge the Legislature to recognize the direct and powerful link between higher education and economic recovery. Certificates and degrees from colleges and universities help people land on their feet again and become financially secure, while creating a talented, resilient workforce that helps businesses and industry recover.
Our region is navigating new terrain as we seek to recover from the pandemic. Students’ dreams persist, as does our economy’s need for workers who have education and skills to fill the jobs our local businesses create. During the 2021 legislative session, let’s protect funding for higher education and strengthen Washington’s road to economic recovery.
Karin Edwards is president of Clark College. Mel Netzhammer is chancellor of Washington State University Vancouver.