The Legislature must reinvest in Washington's community and technical college system.

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Now that the state Legislature has made significant progress in fixing the way the state pays for K-12 education, lawmakers must focus on the next step in the education spectrum: college.

Today’s young people will need a college degree or at least some post-high school training to qualify for the good paying career jobs of the future, from airplane manufacturing to software engineering. Much of that training will happen at the state’s 34 community and technical colleges, which currently educate about 370,000 students.

The state has many competing higher education budget needs, but the two-year college system has suffered the most from years of budget cuts. When lawmakers plowed more money into K-12, especially in teacher salaries, community and technical colleges mostly were left behind.

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A real effort must be made to repair that damage in the 2019-2021 biennial budget, during the next Legislature session, which begins Jan. 14.

At the same time, lawmakers must continue to work toward fully funding the State Need Grant for low-income college students. Nearly 69,000 students received State Need Grants during the 2016-17 school year to help them pay tuition and other fees at Washington’s public colleges and universities. Another 20,000 students were eligible and unable to receive a grant due to lack of funding.

The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges has three asks for the Legislature, all aimed at improving college completion. They want faculty pay raises to bring them in line with K-12 public school teachers; expansion statewide of the Guided Pathways student support program; and 5,000 more student slots in high demand fields like nursing, computer science and advanced manufacturing.

When weighed against the positive outcomes, the request is logical and relatively modest, totaling $189 million. Lawmakers face many equally important priorities for budget dollars this year, such as expanding community mental-health services and filling the K-12 budget gap for special education. But higher education should not be left in the “maybe next year” pile.

By 2023, 77 percent of all job openings are expected to require at least some education beyond high school. Employers already are having a hard time filling the jobs that require a certificate or two-year degree. That “skills gap” is expected to reach more than 10,000 jobs that can’t be filled by Washington residents in the next five years. For the student, earning a two-year degree is estimated to boost lifetime earnings by about $324,000 over what she or he would earn with just a high school diploma.

Colleges across Washington are fulfilling workforce needs, as well as helping students succeed. Walla Walla Community College is a great example. Not only is the Eastern Washington college known for its winemaking program, but the college also is a place to learn about the wind turbine technology of the future. The college’s renewable-energy program also offers training for work in the solar, hydroelectric and biofuel industries.

Supporting Washington’s college system is not just for institutions, taxpayers are making an investment in the state, its economy and the people.

“I think about it as putting more money into Washingtonians,” said Jan Yoshiwara, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. “What people want is to have a good job and to be able to launch themselves into a career pathway that will enable them to support themselves and their families.”

The network of community colleges across the state is designed to do just that: give Washington residents a place to launch themselves into the careers of the future. The Legislature should support the community colleges’ mission by investing in programs that expand opportunities for all.