Eastern Washington is rich with opportunities for a good quality of life, including well-paid careers in a variety of sectors. We are a regional hub for health care and are educating the next generation of health care professionals. We are home to hundreds of manufacturing businesses in aerospace, medical equipment, paper and plastic products, and more. Information technology companies are opening their doors here at an increasing rate, too. These growing industries mean hundreds of well-paying jobs open in our region every year, offering opportunities for health care professionals to construction workers to teachers and engineers.
For our students to be ready for these jobs, many need to continue their education after high school and complete a credential, such as a degree, apprenticeship or certificate in a specific industry. In the near future, about two-thirds of the jobs in our region will be filled with workers who have earned a credential beyond a high school diploma.
Here, we face a critical gap. A new report from Washington STEM and the Spokane STEM Network shows that only about one in three (36 percent) Eastern Washington students graduating from high school earn such a credential by the time they are 26.
The rate of credential attainment is even bleaker for students of color – just 19 percent of our Latinx students in the class of 2015 complete education or training after high school by age 26 – and for students from low-income families, whose completion rate is 24 percent.
This is not nearly enough for our students, or for the future health of our regional economy.
Today, a postsecondary credential is the greatest driver of economic mobility and access to family-wage jobs. Studies show that a credential after high school is one of the strongest indicators of lifetime earnings. Students who do not complete such a credential face a lifetime of limited options.
What’s more, available talent is one of the key indicators for a business to relocate or grow in our region.
To be sure we have ample home-grown talent. One of the best investments we can make as a region is to ensure that our students have the supports they need to pursue education and training that enables them to succeed on career pathways of their choice, ready to support themselves and their families and prepared to serve the region in the years ahead.
How do we increase the number of our students who are earning credentials and ready to succeed in careers? As a region – and a state – we must focus on strategies that increase the rate at which students enter programs beyond high school, as well as provide student-centered supports that enable them to complete these programs. These strategies must focus on closing racial, gender and income opportunity gaps.
In his 2019-2021 budget proposal, Gov. Inslee put forward a strong statement of support for these priorities. His budget makes education and training after high school affordable for more Washington students who might not otherwise be able to pursue the career of their dreams. It also creates additional pathways into well-paying jobs, and it supports high-quality faculty and staff.
The College Promise Coalition – in which Gonzaga University, Whitworth University, Eastern Washington University, Washington State University, University of Washington, Community Colleges of Spokane, Greater Spokane Inc. and the Spokane STEM Network are participants – is working collaboratively across sectors and across the state to implement strategies that support students who face barriers to entering and completing postsecondary education.
For example, expanding the pathways into postsecondary opportunities enables more students to pursue credentials. The coalition is working to increase access and reduce financial barriers to programs that encourage students to earn college credit in high school, as well as connect learning to career possibilities.
The coalition also supports critical financial aid programs such as the State Need Grant, College Bound, State Work-Study, and others that reduce the financial barriers that many students face.
The unprecedented partnership among education, business, labor, and community-based organizations seeks to open more diverse pathways for Washington students to pursue the unique opportunities in our state.
The Career Connect Washington plan to expand pathways to great jobs by scaling and growing career-connected learning for students throughout Washington helps achieve that goal. This ambitious plan ensures ALL our students are able to access high quality programs that connect them to the in-demand high potential careers right here in our region and state.
During the coming legislative session, the coalition’s members will be working together to advance and fund policies that support more of our students to get the education and postsecondary training they need to succeed in the many jobs that our local businesses are creating. The education priorities of Gov. Inslee’s budget are a critical first step in this process, and we are excited to build on them.
Enabling more students to achieve credentials after high school is a win for students and their families, and it’s a win for our businesses that are seeking talented and innovative workers.
Michael Conlin is president of United Faculty of Eastern; Michael Dunn is superintendent of NEWESD 101; Thayne M. McCulloh is president of Gonzaga University; and Beck A. Taylor is president of Whitworth University.