Ask someone who was there when Centralia College began offering four-year degrees 10 years ago and they often remember feeling a little like they were in uncharted territory.
The state had only been allowing two-year colleges to offer bachelor’s degree programs for a few years, so they were largely building a program from the ground up.
Looking back on the work, worry and wait that went into those first years, Larry McGee, who served as the first dean of the bachelor’s of applied science degree at Centralia College, said it was all worth it to see the positive impact it has had on the community.
“Three of 41 years working were in this program, but there were no better three years than when I did this,” McGee said.
The roots of four-year degrees at Centralia College began with the 2005 passage of House Bill 1794 giving the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) authority over the first pilot programs offering baccalaureate pathways at community colleges.
The effort was part of SBCTC’s goal of reaching 42,400 bachelor’s degrees awarded annually in Washington. To do this, SBCTC notes, the community college and technical college schools in Washington will need to have 22,000 more of its students transfer to a baccalaureate program a by 2030.
“Washington state is low on bachelor’s degrees,” said Connie Smejkal, Centralia College dean of instructional services. “We import a lot of our bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees. So, the question was how do we grow our own workforce?”
Prior to the bill, Smejkal explained, a two-year associate degree was largely considered a “terminal degree,” meaning that someone who earned it was unlikely to continue with any other schooling. And many associate degree holders who did pursue further schooling found they had to largely start over. With the number of careers requiring minimum bachelor’s degrees on the rise, something had to be done.
“Twenty years ago in Lewis County, it didn’t matter if you had a degree,” McGee noted. “If you were into fishing or logging, you could get a good job. But those days are largely over.”
In 2012, SBCTC got full approval to oversee applied bachelor’s degrees offered by a community and technical college. That is the year that Centralia College joined the ranks of those offering four-year degrees, first offering a bachelor in applied management degree.
McGee recalled they received the final approval for the program just 10 days before the first classes were set to start. Knowing they were entering a brand-new program, the first cohort nicknamed themselves the guinea pigs (they even had T-shirts made). But McGee said they were grateful for the opportunity. About 20 percent of the first cohort were people who had already tried once to earn a bachelor’s degree and were not successful, often because they had previously had to travel to Tacoma or Vancouver to seek four-year degrees.
“We had students that were so thrilled we were going to do this in our community because they had tried it and struck out,” McGee said.
Allowing community colleges to offer four-year programs met with initial skepticism from both two-year and four-year institutions. Many at two-year colleges worried that their institutions would overemphasize four-year degrees and leave behind their original missions
“We don’t want to lose sight of who we are so there was a little bit of an identity crisis within the college with this,” Smejkal recalled. “There was a lot of reassuring we had to do.”
At four-year colleges, the concern was community colleges encroaching on their prospective student pool. Joyce Hammer, Centralia College vice president of instruction, served on the SBCTC board when Centralia College’s first programs were approved. This year, she was named to the National Community College Baccalaureate Association Board of Directors. She said community and technical colleges and four-year institutions do not have an overlap in prospective students.
“They really do serve a different population. All of our data is showing that,” Hammer said. “They often end up with the same outcomes, but they start out in different places.”
A typical student seeking a four-year degree from Centralia College is usually someone who never pictured themselves earning a four-year degree and instead began in some sort of workforce education. Where the majority of students at most four-year colleges are 18 to 25, students seeking four-year degrees at Centralia College are an average age of 33. They are often working adults, which means their needs are very different from a recent high school graduate. At Centralia College, that translates into offerings such as evening classes held only a couple days a week and hybrid schedules consisting of about 40 percent traditional in-person learning complimented by online work.
“We really try to have a modality that the working adults can come do it and they don’t have to quit their jobs,” Smejkal said.
Centralia College is one of 30 community and technical colleges in Washington offering four-year degrees. In addition to applied management, Centralia College now offers bachelor’s degrees in diesel technology, informational technology, teacher education (K-8) and behavioral healthcare.
Since 2012, 479 students have earned bachelor’s degrees at Centralia College. Behavioral healthcare was added in 2021 and expects to graduate its first cohort in 2023.
In order to start a new program, community colleges need to go through several layers of scrutiny, including proof that graduating students will be able to find jobs because the community has a growing need for workers in that area. And the degree program must be “two-by-two,” meaning four-year degrees are built off of existing two-year degree programs, which can stand on their own. Centralia College works with a board of community stakeholders to learn about what skills they need in workers coming out of college. This can sometimes lead to surprising findings. For example, when the teacher education program was started in 2017, statewide data wasn’t pointing to the need for more teachers.
“But our superintendents were telling us a different story,” Smejkal said.
Ann Grande Moody, director of the bachelor of applied science in teacher education program at Centralia College, recalled there was so much interest in the first cohort of teacher education students six years ago that they ended up admitting 50 students.
Today, they keep the cohorts to around 30 students. Grande Moody said 90 percent of their certified teachers are teaching within 40 miles of Centralia College, 56 percent are working in schools in areas with a population of less than 10,000 and 25 percent are working in special education, specifically filling shortages.
“It’s mainly a grow your own program and some of our strongest supporters and areas with the largest rallying cry are our small towns,” Grande Moody said.
This model of interacting with local employers meant Centralia College could quickly pivot to meet staffing shortages brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. They were able to convince some districts in Lewis County to hire Centralia College teacher education students as paraeducators and allow them to keep those jobs during the student teaching phase of their coursework. Typically, teacher candidates have to quit outside jobs during student teaching because the job is so demanding, creating financial barriers for some would-be teachers.
“It fueled real growth here and substantially aided in the para and teacher shortage in the local area,” Grande Moody said.
After 10 years, Centralia College’s four-year degree programs continue to evolve. Ongoing conversations with local employers help them understand what graduates need to know to succeed in the local job market. They are also starting to have conversations about what “sunsetting” a program might look like if the demand for those jobs ever dips.
And any concerns from the state’s four-year institutions have largely waned.
“The four-years are very supportive,” Hammer said. “We have a great transfer relationship with local four-years because when our students transfer, they’re successful.”
And at Centralia College, the numbers say it all. Hammer said statistics show that being able to offer four-year degrees has actually brought more students to Centralia College, both for two-year and four-year programs.
“They saw the pathways and it actually boosted Centralia College overall,” Hammer said.
Centralia College Four-Year Programs
• Applied management, started 2012. Total degrees — 289
• Diesel technology, started 2014. Total degrees — 50
• Information technology, started 2017. Total degrees — 35
• Teacher education (K-8), started 2017. Total degrees — 105
• Behavioral healthcare, started 2021. First graduates wil be honored in 2023.