With the first candidates for Washington's new bachelor of applied science degrees graduating, the four community colleges that offer them are learning their students are getting opportunities they wouldn't have otherwise, writes Jill Wakefield, chancellor of Seattle Community Colleges.

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THREE years ago, the Washington Legislature expanded opportunities when it gave two-year colleges the authority to offer bachelor of applied science (BAS) degrees in specific disciplines.

What have we learned, as our first class of bachelor’s degree students prepare for commencement on June 18? As we had anticipated, students, regional employers and the economy all will benefit from this 21st-century degree.

South Seattle Community College was in the first group of pilot programs, with a BAS degree in Hospitality Management. Olympic College in Bremerton is conferring a BSN degree in Nursing; Bellevue College, a BAS in Radiation and Imaging Sciences; and Peninsula College in Port Angeles, a BAS in Applied Management.

All these programs filled a need in their communities not being met by other colleges or universities. For our degree at South, the closest hospitality-degree program is at Washington State University in Pullman, which is already filled for the coming year.

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And all of the programs do what community and technical colleges do best — provide well-trained employees for jobs in their regions.

We found that the new bachelor’s degree options attract working adults who are place-bound with responsibilities such as families and homes.

The degrees were designed to help workers advance in their careers, and some students have already been promoted at their workplaces. Even in this economic downturn, all of the students in South’s Hospitality Management program have jobs waiting for them after graduation.

At South, we learned that students are highly motivated, and I would like to share the story of Olga Richardson as an outstanding example. Olga is a mother of two teenagers and a full-time banquet manager at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel who returned to college after 25 years.

Olga wanted to upgrade her knowledge about the hospitality industry and open career opportunities for her future. During the past two years, she also learned “You are never too old, too busy, too poor or too smart to learn.”

Olga appreciated the diversity of her classmates, who ranged from those just starting out to those like her, with full lives and careers.

The college redesigned the traditional curriculum to accommodate students, offering on-campus classes two days a week and online courses the students could fit into their schedules any time of the day or week.

No matter what their backgrounds, the students formed a close group — or cohort — that contributed to each others’ success. They studied and learned together through activities such as peer support and peer teaching.

While student cohorts are well-known in the academic setting, we have learned they are also effective in student learning and retention. More than half of the first cohort will graduate this month and the rest are on track to finish their degrees within two years.

The next class of students is also doing well. Of the 29 students enrolled in the second year, 28 are still on track for their degrees — a retention rate of more than 96 percent, which compares favorably with retention at our state’s four-year colleges.

Based on the pilots’ success, the state approved three additional BAS degrees. This fall, Seattle Central Community College will offer a BAS in Applied Behavioral Science, providing a pathway to higher-level professional positions in the social services and to the master’s in social work degree. Lake Washington Technical College will offer a bachelor’s of technology in Applied Design and Columbia Basin College will offer a BAS in Applied Management.

Thanks to HB 1794, sponsored by Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, Washington can close the gap in the number of bachelor’s degrees our state will need as the economy rebounds and grows. While we applaud our graduates this June, we also congratulate our legislators on their investment in our state’s colleges.

Jill Wakefield is chancellor of the Seattle Community Colleges, which includes Seattle Central, North Seattle and South Seattle Community Colleges; and Seattle Vocational Institute.