For an increasing number of students, the traditional path from high school to college to career success is taking a detour. College enrollments have dropped significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrating the need for increased investment in a variety of programs and options for students.
Clark College and other two-year institutions can play a role in providing needed opportunities. So can various apprentice programs throughout the state as leaders work to prepare the workforce of tomorrow.
“Clark is a pillar in our community, known for accessible education, training and developing our local workforce, and a wonderful place to get started,” Clark College President Karin Edwards said recently during the annual state of the school address. “That is all good. I would challenge us to also become known for closing opportunity gaps.”
Edwards said Clark distributed an estimated $3 million to students during the fall of 2021 through federal pandemic relief. Officials also plan to use a $350,000 investment from the Cowlitz Tribal Foundation to provide loans and scholarships for students of color, and joint fundraising with Washington State University Vancouver and Lower Columbia College is targeting similar equity work.
Washington has 34 community and technical colleges, providing a path to secondary education or technical training for a broad swath of students. Making those schools accessible is crucial to developing a well-trained workforce for businesses throughout the state. In 2015-16, Clark had as many as 8,400 full-time students; Edwards estimates the college will finish this year with 5,500 full-time equivalents.
Meanwhile, necessary work in the Legislature is underway to bolster alternative paths toward a career. In 2019, lawmakers established the Career Connect Washington system under the Workforce Education Investment Act. The public-private partnership expands and supports apprenticeship programs.
Now, Senate Bill 5600 — co-sponsored by Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center — would establish grants to help apprenticeship programs upgrade equipment and enhance remote instruction. It also would provide help with transportation and child care services — support that is crucial to making instruction more accessible.
Senate Bill 5764 would remove barriers that prevent apprenticeship students from using the Washington College Grant, a form of financial assistance. “We should be valuing the countless hours of on-the-job training and the education that apprenticeship grads have received, and make sure that they can transfer that credit appropriately,” said Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, who introduced the bill.
The pandemic likely will create lasting shifts in American labor. Millions of people have left their jobs in what has become known as The Great Resignation, and many — for now — have left the job market. States must take an aggressive approach to recognizing and meeting the needs of employers now and into the future, supporting educational options that vary from the traditional path of a four-year college.
In Washington, about 40 percent of students earn a degree or a professional credential after high school. The state must do better; attracting and retaining employers requires an educated workforce that is prepared to fulfill the needs of businesses.
Community colleges, along with technical and apprenticeship programs, are a big part of providing educated workers and preparing students for successful careers.