Q and A With Senator Derek Kilmer: January 2010
Interview by Vincent Badolato
Washington Senator Derek Kilmer, chair of the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, talks about the key role community colleges play in the nation's economy.
State Legislatures: You’ve referred to community colleges as “an integral part of the solution to help get our nation out the current economic mess.” Could you expand on this? In what other ways is the community college sector important to both Washington state and the nation?
Senator Derek Kilmer: Our community colleges are important to training and retraining the workforce of today and tomorrow.
On the retraining front, we see a direct relation between unemployment and demand for worker retraining. Our community colleges provide folks with an avenue to new skills and a new job.And they’re important to our economy over the long haul, too.Not every high school graduate will pursue a college degree. That said, a few dynamics highlight the need to educate more people to higher levels.
First, our workforce is aging. For example, in my state, the average Boeing employee is nearly 50. We see similar challenges at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in my legislative district. To meet the needs of tomorrow’s economy, we must replenish the talent pipeline.
Second, post-secondary education leads to higher pay. According to Washington’s Higher Education Coordinating (HEC) Board, workers with an Associate degree earned 28 percent more than those with only a high school diploma, and those with a bachelor’s degree or higher earned 80 percent more.
Third, more jobs will require education beyond high school. Research suggests that roughly three of every five job openings in Washington require some post-secondary training. While some of that can be addressed by folks coming through the K-12 pipeline–which is critically important–we will not meet our ongoing workforce challenges through the K-12 pipeline alone. We’ll also rely on adult learners which highlights the enormous value of our community colleges. According to the Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges, the total number of working-age adults with a high school education or less plus younger people ages 18 to 24 with less than a high school diploma will equal all high school graduating classes added together between 2000-2011. In other words, by providing opportunities for adult learners to skill up, we can address some of our workforce challenges.
To me, that’s a huge opportunity for those of us who care about higher education.
SL: Why is community college student success important to you?
Kilmer: I guess I’d answer that in three ways.
First, as a dad of two little girls. I serve in the Legislature because I want to ensure that my kids–and everyone in my state–can get a good education and can get a good job. That’s what motivates me to serve. And that’s part of the reason I care so much about the success of our students.
Second, when I’m not in our state capital, I work for a nonprofit focused on economic development. In the end, our ability to keep and grow jobs in my community, and in this nation, is directly related to our ability to provide a skilled workforce.
And finally, I care about community college students as an American who believes education is the surest ticket to the American Dream. President Kennedy once said, “Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation.”
SL: From your perspective as both a legislator and a former community college board of trustee member, what are some of the major challenges to community college student success?
Kilmer: I’ve met a lot of the students; as a former trustee it was my favorite part of the job. I’ve attended events at numerous colleges in my state and had hundreds of students visit me down in Olympia. What I hear gives me tremendous hope and a great appreciation for what students overcome on a daily basis.
This spring I met with a woman studying nursing at Tacoma Community College. She was balancing school, a part time job, and a family. She told me that she was struggling with the costs of college, books, child care, and everything else. But she told me, as she approached her graduation, that her time at TCC had opened the door to a job offer and a way to support her family. She had enormous pride in what she had accomplished.
That same day, I spoke with a young man studying economics. He had gone back to school after being laid off. He told me it was a tough transition. It had been a while since he had been in a classroom. Just getting back into books and math and the classroom setting was a challenge. I said to him, “Why economics?” And he said, “Have you read the newspapers lately? It seems like SOMEBODY had better understand economics.” I’m confident he’ll be doing his part to turn this economy around.
Research suggests that there are a variety of risk factors that make it less likely that a student will complete their education – if they require substantial remediation, if they’re a part-time student, if they’re working full-time, if they’re a single parent, if they have high financial need, if they’re a first-generation student. As legislators, we need to be conscious of those challenges and work to mitigate them in hopes of optimizing student success.
SL: What are the three most important things that legislators need to know about community colleges?
Kilmer: Community colleges provide enormous opportunities for people to pursue the American Dream. According to Washington’s State Board for Community & Technical Colleges, more than two-thirds of community college students who entered postsecondary education at age 25 or older were low income. So, whether students are pursuing job skills certificates, associates degrees or even English proficiency, community colleges are a critical avenue for low income and low skill adults to pursue a path out of poverty. Moreover, a majority of entering students at community colleges are “first-generation” students for whom neither parent attended a post-secondary institution and received a degree.
Research in Washington and nationwide suggests that there is a tipping point tied to one year of education. Specifically, attending college for at least one year and earning a credential provides a substantial boost in earnings for adults with a high school diploma or less who enter higher education through a community college. Moreover, jobs requiring at least an associate degree in the years ahead will likely grow at twice the rate as jobs requiring no college experience.
Community colleges are driving innovation in the delivery of education. Community colleges have top-notch faculty that are using new technologies and new relationships with industry to empower their students. For example, in Washington, eLearning enrollment has seen double-digit growth in the past year.
SL: What do you see as the state legislative role in fostering student success at community colleges?
Kilmer: First, we need to adequately fund our colleges. Particularly at a time where student need is up and state budgets are down, we can’t throw our community colleges under the bus. They are part of the solution to this economic mess. Two-and-a-half centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin, as part of his Poor Richard’s Almanac wrote, “An investment in knowledge pays the greatest interest.” Despite tough budget times in our state and nearly every state, we need to avoid cutting the solution.
Second, we need to be thoughtful about establishing policies that encourage student success. Here in Washington state, for example, we’ve funded the Student Achievement Initiative, a new performance funding system for community and technical colleges designed to improve accountability and provide incentives through financial rewards to colleges for increasing the levels of achievement attained by their students.
Vincent Badolato tracks higher education issues for NCSL.