Brown did not have a background in education administration, so we asked him what he’s learned from the job.

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In June, Marty Brown will retire from his job as executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, a job he’s held the past four years.

Brown did not have a background in education administration, so we asked him what he’s learned from the job.

This interview has been edited for length.

Q: What did you learn about the state’s community colleges in the past four years, and what has surprised you about them?

Brown: I think I did not understand the complexity of our system and the real diverse nature of the colleges. They’re so different, and yet they all work together. I also didn’t realize how nimble they were. Just watching them work, and change programs when needed in the local area, was really eye-opening. For example, five years ago we didn’t know anything about mechatronics and composites, and now we’ve got 19 colleges that (teach) that kind of work because the industry, particularly aerospace, all went to that kind of production.

Q: How have the colleges fared since the recession?

A: We are still struggling to get back to 2007 levels of state funding, and when you combine that with a drop in enrollments because the economy’s improved, and tuition reductions, it’s a triple whammy. Our enrollments are down 25,000 to 30,000 from the height of the recession in full-time equivalents. The Legislature obviously cut a lot of funds from everywhere during the recession, and we just have not been able to recover. I think a lot is cyclical … We’ve been focused so much, since the recovery began, on K-12. But we need to have places for these students to go (after graduation).

Q:What does this legislative session hold in store?

A: In talking to several legislators, they’ve said, “McCleary’s our first thing, but we also recognize in higher education, it’s community college’s turn.” We did not get as big a tuition reduction as the four years did, and that added to some of the enrollment woes because when tuition (at a community college) gets closer (to a regional college tuition, such as Western Washington University), students will choose to go to a regional rather than a community college. Our state obviously needs bachelor’s degrees, but it also needs lots and lots of middle-skill jobs, and folks are starting to recognize that it’s not just aerospace. We need more truck drivers, we need more nurses, we need folks who build things.

Q: For all of those jobs, you need more than a high-school diploma.

A: Absolutely. I think eventually, in the long term — quite a long term … I think eventually basic education in our state is going to get defined as more than K-12, whether it’s K-14 or K-16. The whole theory of basic education has been to get people to be better citizens, and be employable. Folks need more than a high-school education.

Q: How long will that take?

A: I don’t know. It’s taken so long to fully fund K-12, and the debate is slowly starting. I think the discussion will continue to grow. I’d say 10 years, maybe more.

Q: If you could fix one thing about the community-college system, what would it be?

A: Because of the state funding shortfall, we can’t adequately pay faculty … no matter what, whether they’re in transfer programs or in workforce programs. It’s harder and harder to get faculty to teach in some of the new, evolving industries because they make so much more money in industry. There’s always a tension in community colleges between full-time and adjunct faculty. We’d obviously like to have more full-time, but we need adjuncts, too — because it adds so much to our flexibility and nimbleness. When a new industry comes to town, we need to hire somebody, at least short-term, to teach the retraining, or the program that is needed for that industry or business. In many cases, our faculty don’t make as much as K-12 teachers and that’s just not right.

Q: What’s been your biggest accomplishment in the last four years?

A: I think we’ve done a really good job partnering with the four-year (colleges and universities) in our state, public and private. And obviously that’s not just me — it’s the presidents in our system and the four-year system. Also, I think we have been responsive to the state’s needs for more degrees in all sorts of areas. When I started, we had authorized 12 (applied) bachelor’s degrees in the community- and technical-college system, and we’ve now authorized 75. We went from 5 colleges to 20-plus. They’re locally focused — we have to prove there’s an industry need … Centralia College, for instance, has a diesel technology bachelor’s degree because the industry said we need people who not only know how to deal with diesel engines, but also how to manage people who deal with diesel engines.

Q: There are many interesting programs in community colleges, but they don’t seem well-known.

A: Part of it is they’re very localized. There are interesting programs at all three of the colleges in Seattle, but they’re not world-ground-breaking like programs at the UW. They’re not going to get as much coverage, there’s not research involved. I mean, our colleges teach. We don’t do a lot of research, we don’t have a lot of potential for Nobel Prize winners, we don’t have football. The faculty teach and train so the local communities can thrive. The local communities are very familiar with what’s going on in their areas, but it’s just not as national news-breaking.

Q: What advice would you give to a student who doesn’t want to go to a four-year school, but wants to go beyond a high-school diploma and make a decent wage?

A: I think one of the problems we have as adults is we stop asking kids what they want to be when they grow up when they’re 6 years old. We need to keep asking all the way into high school. You don’t hear many students as juniors in high school say I want to be a firefighter. But, we train firefighters. We really struggle with that fact in our state that we do not have a college-going culture. We’re way behind in that number of seniors that graduate from our high school who go on to college compared to the national average … We need to do a better job going into middle schools and showing students what fun some of these industries are. They’re not as dangerous as they once were, they’re not as dirty … (graduates) make good money, you’re using your hands, you’re able to build stuff.

Q: Do you have other advice for students going directly from high school to a community college?

A: I would say, think about what you want to do and don’t limit yourself. A lot of students say, I want to be a doctor. Well if you’re interested in a health-care field, we train phlebotomists, nursing assistants, physical and occupational therapists, all sorts of things in the health-care field. Nine out of 10 are not going to be doctors, and some of it is knowing what the options are. The education you’re going to get is transferable, and in some cases … you can go right into a job.

Q: What advice would you give a community-college student who’s also a working adult, and has been out of school for a while?

A: At that stage, some of it is, don’t be afraid to come back. We will give you credit for what you already know, in a lot of cases. You don’t have to start over and do freshman English. If you want to extend your career and move into management, there are tons of ways to do that in our system. Many, many employers in our state want their employees to have that kind of flexibility — so they can help run the business after working in the business. With the aging of our society and with changing demographics, people with talents of any sort can really move up if they get a little bit more education. The other thing: You’re not alone. Our average student age is 26, in our bachelor’s programs it’s over 30.

Q: If you live in Puget Sound, with many different community-college campuses close by, how do you choose between them?

A: It’s a strength that there’s so many different programs available in the Puget Sound area. No matter what you want to do, we’ve pretty much got you covered. The weakness is, how do you figure out which one. Our website has all of the colleges listed. You can on our website, go to automotive, click on automotive, all of the different colleges that do that show up. If you are in high school, you can ask your counselor. But we do need to do a better job of letting folks know what all’s available and where.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for your successor?

A: One of biggest challenges we’re going to have is the changing demographics and being able to teach and train folks who have never been to college, have never thought about going to college, have no one in the family who has ever gone to college. We can obviously do the training. It’s the additional services students need, because they don’t have a family member who can say, “This is how it works, this is how it worked when I went,” and have never even stepped on a college campus. It can be very daunting. The amount of support services needed is significantly more than it was 15-20 years ago and it’s just going to keep growing.