Funding Edge for Workforce Programs

New formula in Washington State incentivizes community and technical college courses linked to industry demands, which may harm liberal arts-related fields of study.

July 6, 2016
North Seattle College

A new state funding formula in Washington State could change the mix of programs offered by many of the state's community colleges in ways that seem likely to benefit workforce-related disciplines over the liberal arts.

This fall, the two-year colleges will receive state funding in part based on the types of courses they offer and the industry demands of the region. Those courses that offer workforce training in high-need fields and adult basic education will receive more money or incentive dollars.

"We did not get any more money to do this, so that's why there are going to be winners or losers in our system and that's why it took the presidents a couple of years to agree …. It wasn't unanimous approval," said Marty Brown, executive director of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Those losers will more than likely come from programs that don't overtly address the state's workforce needs, such as many disciplines in the liberal arts and the humanities. The programs that benefit will center around the workforce needs of the region. So for instance, an agricultural program in Seattle wouldn't be incentivized, but one in Walla Walla, with its significant agriculture industry, would be, he said.

"One of the real challenges of the new allocation formula is that if it was new money it would work much better," said Jill Wakefield, the retiring chancellor of Seattle Colleges. "Unfortunately, money is being redistributed among the colleges. You're taking from your neighbor and moving it around, and we're all in a cut mode."

Wakefield said in Seattle the demand is less for liberal arts as well, but they're also considering centralizing the nursing programs and looking for efficiencies.

The community college system received $1.37 billion from the Legislature this biennium, or a little over $650 million a year, Brown said, adding that his office is estimating these changes will only affect about 3 percent of these dollars.

Incentivizing colleges to support those technical programs that address the workforce needs of their communities fits their missions, Brown said.

Nationally there's been a decrease in the number and share of associate degrees going to students in technical and workforce programs, said Robert Townsend, director of the Washington office of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, in an email.

He points to a March report that found associate degrees conferred in programs with humanities indicators rose from 338,688 in 2013 to 347,735 in 2014. Meanwhile, the number of associate degrees in professional fields, which includes technical and workforce programs, decreased from 442,000 in 2012 to 404,040 in 2014.

Brown said the old way of funding the colleges, which didn't provide program incentives, wasn't responsive to enrollment changes or changes to the economy, like a recession. Systemwide enrollment is down about 1 percent this year.

"Colleges with growing enrollments were suffering, and those losing enrollment managed to keep money they weren't supposed to have," he said.

The adult basic education courses, like remedial courses or English language learner classes, don't make money for the colleges but are expensive to operate, he said.

"The state board wanted to make sure there was an incentive to do those programs, because they are an important part of our mission," Brown said.

Just what effect the new funding will have on the colleges is still unknown. The state is now working to identify the high-demand programs for each of the colleges, which vary by region. They'll take into account where skills gaps are as well as enrollment.

"We will still do a tremendous amount of liberal arts and we still transfer students from those courses, but the incentive will go to those places with more of a demand," Brown said. "There will be changes in programs, but I don't think it'll happen overnight. But over the long term, we will be doing the better job of addressing the needs of the state."


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