While Washington’s community and technical colleges reeled from enrollment declines during the pandemic, a subset of their programs saw an astonishing flood of interest. Applied baccalaureate degrees are on the rise. 

These programs target individuals with two-year technical degrees — which often don’t transfer into traditional bachelor’s tracks — to access promotions or rise into leadership roles in their existing job and community. 

Students tend to be in their 30s, and many have families, jobs and financial or geographic constraints that make tradit​​ional university pathways inaccessible, said Valerie Sundby, director of transfer education with the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. The courses are geared toward working students, with online and evening components. 

“Students can continue their life, continue in their current job, and can see the immediate relevance in the program to how they’re going to scale up in their career,” said Sundby. 

From fall 2019 to 2021, enrollment in Washington community and technical colleges dropped by 24%. At the same time, enrollment in these four-year technical degree programs grew by 16%. 

Over 5,100 students were enrolled in one of these programs across the state last fall. Some, like 28-year-old Diego Falcon Costilla, returned to school for a career-focused degree, as opposed to one in the humanities. 

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Falcon Costilla had a bachelor’s degree in psychology. But after graduating, he found himself working instead as an IT recruiter. 

“I saw how much money they made,” he said of his recruits. “That’s when I wanted to change careers.”

In 2019, he enrolled in a two-year job training degree program in web development at Seattle Central College with dreams of one day working for a big-name company like Amazon, Microsoft or Google. 

In June 2021, he finished that course and transferred to North Seattle College to earn a four-year degree in application development — a degree that didn’t exist a decade ago. He also began a paid internship as a software developer at Microsoft. From the start, Falcon Costilla said, his professors were teaching skills that were useful to the work he was doing for one of his dream employers. 

A dead-end model

Four-year degrees were once the sole territory of universities, off-limits to community and technical colleges. But in 2000, there was growing demand for skilled laborers locally, while fewer than half of adults in Seattle had a four-year degree. 

A 2001 study on regional employment gaps found that 73% of living-wage jobs for single adults required moderate to long-term education. That number increased to 94% for jobs with wages sufficient to support an adult with two children. People of color and women were more likely than their white and male counterparts to be in search of work, it found. The study was conducted by the Northwest Policy Center at the University of Washington and the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations. 

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“We were starting to realize that we needed to ramp up degree production in order to meet the needs of our state,” said Joyce Hammer, who directed transfer education for the state board at the time. 

There are two types of two-year degrees. A transfer degree allows an associate’s holder to continue into a university setting if they choose. A technical degree, by contrast, prepares a person to enter a specific workforce. Two decades ago, there wasn’t an option for someone with a technical degree to continue their education. After years in industry, those interested in pursuing leadership roles in fields like dental hygiene or information technology were often told they needed to return to school and earn a bachelor’s degree in order to advance.

The birth of the baccalaureate

There was minimal interest among the state’s six public universities in developing a four-year degree path for these students. Central Washington University’s Information Technology and Administrative Management department did choose to launch degree programs in 2004. But following the path of states like Florida and West Virginia that had enabled community and technical colleges to offer baccalaureate degrees, the state Legislature approved a pilot program within four community colleges to offer more in 2005.

Within a few years, the pilot was approved for broader launch and, a decade ago, the community and technical college board was given the power to authorize future programs on its own, without legislative approval, so long as it could prove a regional employment gap in the subject. 

Today, 30 of 34 colleges in the state offer about 140 applied science and nursing degree programs. As of 2021, some 9,500 students in Washington have graduated from these programs, and the state is seen as a national leader of community college baccalaureates. (While 25 states offer baccalaureate degrees, some have just one program.) 

Find out more about applied baccalaureates

Applied baccalaureate degrees allow individuals with two-year technical degrees to advance their education. The aim is to enable promotions, new job opportunities and career mobility to meet local employment needs. Washington has designed its programs alongside state universities to allow students interested in a master’s degree to be eligible after their degree completion. 

The average annual cost of a BAS degree in Washington is $7,143. 

Three years after enrollment, 78% of students are employed and earn a median income of $55,000 annually. 

For more information: https://www.sbctc.edu/colleges-staff/programs-services/bachelors-degrees/

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A 2021 national survey of the programs by New America found that over 30% of Washingtonians majored in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), followed by nearly 25% in business, 23% in health care and nursing and the remainder in education. 

The average annual tuition for an applied baccalaureate in Washington is $7,143, comparable to tuition at the lowest-cost regional university, according to the state community and technical college board. The board reports that nearly 80% of graduates are employed three years after enrollment with a median yearly wage of $55,000. Five years after graduation, the median wage grows to $68,000. 

Focusing locally

Buy-in from local universities and businesses has helped increase the number of four-year degrees at offered at Washington community colleges, said Sundby. Before approval, colleges go through a rigorous vetting process and work with surrounding universities to ensure their programs won’t be duplicative. They also have to show labor market demand and consult with local employers to ensure students are likely to be hired once they graduate, she said.

Local support of the programs wasn’t immediate, though, said Hammer. When they first launched, there was concern among public universities that the programs would pull students away from existing four-year programs. A decade after their full launch, there’s an understanding that they serve different demographics — often, adults who never could have envisioned themselves attending a university, she said. Plus, those graduates gain confidence and skills that lead many to pursue masters level education, feeding them back toward universities. 

Because the programs are offered at local colleges, they attract and retain more diverse students, said Angela Kersenbrock, president of the national Community College Baccalaureate Association. This creates a more representative workforce and helps lift family incomes. Their geographic spread also allows rural areas to increase and retain talent, overcoming a “brain drain” of workers from rural to urban areas, she said. 

Future growth

Interest in these applied degrees swelled during the pandemic. That’s likely because degree-holders were more able to work from home through lockdowns, and the programs are pitched as having career pipelines, said Kersenbrock.

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This fall, that growth is expected to continue in Washington, not only in enrollment but in program availability. 

Edmonds College is set to launch two new bachelor of applied science programs in advanced manufacturing and materials engineering technology and in integrated health care management, for instance, and the first cohort of behavioral health baccalaureate students will start classes at Centralia College. And, in what some see as an expansion of four-year community college programs filling unmet industry demands, North Seattle College is set to join universities and Bellevue College in offering a bachelor of science degree in computer science, creating more local talent for the ever-growing industry. 

“We’re really thinking of ways to add to the economic vitality and economic growth of our communities,” said Sundby. “It opens up a whole new world of opportunity for that individual, but also more degree holders.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story said none of the state’s six four-year universities were interested in creating a four-year degree program for students who had earned a technical degree. However, Central Washington University did launch such a program, in 2004.