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Lower Columbia College officials are out to debunk the myth that “college isn’t for everyone.”

In partnership with the K-12 local school districts, the college has launched a “Graduation Plus” campaign to offer more college-level classes in high school and to encourage Cowlitz County students to enroll at LCC for at least one more year of education after graduation. The campaign’s goal is to raise the number of college degree-holders in Cowlitz County, enrich the local economy and fight youth “brain drain.”

LCC President Chris Bailey said college officials are surprised by the low number of local high school graduates who continue their education. In some districts, just half of the students do so, he said.

Research shows that openings for “high demand careers” — those that offer high wages and good benefits — are on the rise, Bailey said.

“But nobody was going into them and being trained for them. The unions and industry weren’t seeing skilled enough workers for those specific areas,” Bailey said.

Washington Roundtable, a nonprofit that supports education and workforce and economic development, estimates that there will be 740,000 new job openings in the state by 2021. Nearly three-quarters of those jobs, or about 550,000, will be fill by “credentialed workers,” or individuals with a college degree, apprenticeship training or professional certification, according to a 2018 Roundtable report.

“Today’s job market is fundamentally different than what previous generations entered … but one thing is clear: A postsecondary credential is essential,” the report says. “A high school diploma — once the key to steady, family-wage employment — is not sufficient. Jobs that provide a good salary and a path to advancement overwhelmingly require a postsecondary credential.”

Only 40 percent of the students in the state who graduated from high school in 2015 are projected to earn a college degree or certification by age 26, the report says.

And Cowlitz County tends to trail the state, with a significantly higher portion of residents that stopped their education after high school as compared to the state average. Just about 26 percent of Cowlitz County residents age 25 or older have a college degree, according to the US Census 2016 American Community Survey. Statewide, that number about 43 percent.

In the past, many Cowlitz County jobs did not require college-level training, Bailey said. But with rapidly developing technology and a need for higher math and computer skills, that is no longer the case, he said.

“We were originally a mill city, so it wasn’t necessary for individuals to get a degree in order to have a great career. Some of those opportunities have gone away. ... The jobs themselves have changed dramatically over time with technology,” Bailey said.

LCC provides additional training to “provide that level of skill development to make sure they can succeed in the modern skilled labor market,” Bailey said.

But some high school seniors — and often those interested in trades-based careers — don’t see themselves as “college material,” Bailey said, so LCC and its K-12 partners developed a plan to show students that’s just not the case.

To start, the Graduation Plus campaign looks to “maximize the high school experience” with dual-credit classes, Bailey said. Those courses would be taught in high school classrooms, but would meet the LCC course standards.

“The more we can go into high school classes and get them (college) credit, that tells the student they took a college level class and did well in it,” Bailey said.

Plus, dual credit courses encourage students to earn a college credential by cutting down the time it takes to finish a degree program, Bailey said. Those courses would transfer directly to LCC to meet degree requirements.

Longview Superintendent Dan Zorn said the “compressed time means savings. It’s less time and money you have to give to classes and … less time before you get into the workforce,” Zorn said.

“From our students standpoint, I think it ... really helps them connect the things they are doing in high school to see how it applies to college and (a career),” Zorn said.

Grad Plus also emphasizes LCC’s “alternate pathways” to a college credential, including a one-year multi-craft trades certificate or two-year programs in welding, manufacturing and other industry-based careers, Bailey said. Those programs might be more appealing to a student preparing for a job in a trades-based career, rather than the traditional “academic” pathway toward a bachelor’s degree.

Zorn said the program “opens up wider opportunities to some of our kids who may not see themselves wanting a four-year degree.”

As an added benefit, school officials say the Graduation Plus can help the community “retain its local talent” by training students for the job openings in Cowlitz County.

“I think we’d all like to see the jobs that become open be filled by the people of Cowlitz County,” Zorn said.

Having more credentialed workers will in turn “enhance the community” because a skilled workforce attracts new businesses and industries, Bailey said.

LCC is piloting its Grad Plus campaign in the Longview and Kelso school districts this year. The college will measure the success of the campaign by tracking how many more high school students continue onto college programs, as well as documenting how soon LCC graduates get a job and how much those jobs pay.

“If we can provide a high level of educational attainment here, if students can get good jobs when they are done because there is the demand and they can be the supply into that, it works out for everyone,” Bailey said.

“It’s going to help the community college. It will help the individual students, it will help business and the union. It’s a win-win-win-win.”

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