Washington State had a problem. Industry leaders such as Microsoft, Boeing, Starbucks, and Amazon.com require an educated workforce, and not surprisingly the state ranks high in the number of baccalaureate-holders. The state also ranks high in the production of associate degrees, but paradoxically low in production of bachelor’s degrees. That’s because we import talent from other states and countries.
Recognizing that access to degree completion was holding up career progress for many Washingtonians, in 2005 the state legislature authorized the community and technical college system to begin offering applied baccalaureate degrees. For many applied associate degree-holders, access to the state’s public universities is problematic because of transfer, scheduling and geographic issues. Community and technical colleges are well-versed in serving a student population that juggles jobs, family and school.
Lake Washington Technical College, located in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, offers associate degrees in a variety of high tech, health and industrial fields. We began offering a bachelor of technology in applied design (BTAD) in the fall of 2009 and graduate our first class this month. The program mission is to prepare students to lead and collaborate with teams of creative and technical professionals. Admission requirements include holding an A.A.S. in a design-related field, such as multimedia, game design, video production, architectural/civil engineering graphics or mechanical design. Related work experience is preferable.
We built the schedule around the needs of working students. Each class is offered as a hybrid, meeting at night once a week with additional coursework completed online using our learning management system. All seven Washington pilot colleges considered student work schedules in program development.
As we developed our BTAD curriculum, we asked ourselves what skills our students needed to be successful. What we know is that the landscape in workforce education is shifting dramatically. Ten years ago we had good success turning out production artists, desktop publishers, and drafters. Today those jobs are dramatically different. Much of the production work has been made obsolete by technology advances, outsourced offshore, or moved upstream to the designer or engineer. Foreseeing that our institution needed to evolve to meet a changing workplace, in the late 1990s college leaders began moving us beyond our traditional realm of “terminal” A.A.S. degrees. In fact, the artificial ceiling imposed by a terminal two-year degree in fast-changing technology fields never made much sense. It was always essential that graduates keep updating their technical skills—and likely they might need further and broader education to progress in their careers.
The news of the BTAD was received enthusiastically by LWTC students in the lower division feeder programs. For additional recruiting, we reached out to our partner community colleges, and welcomed our first class of 26 students in 2009. A second cohort began in fall 2010.
Upper division students take courses in design theory and practice, business, management and electives. Academic core courses have a design emphasis. We both broaden and deepen student skills.
I’m often asked what the challenges and surprises were in launching the program. The challenge wasn’t recruiting high-caliber faculty; we’ve had remarkable success. The surprise has not been the determination of our baccalaureate students managing the delicate balance of work, family and school. After all, most were graduates of our two-year program and have been doing this dance all along their educational path. The surprise has not been how much work it is to launch a baccalaureate degree: think of it as launching another two-year program on your campus, if one with different admission standards, curriculum development, accrediting, industry and institutional expectations. One surprise has been that 30 percent of our baccalaureate students have told us they intend to go on to graduate school. If you think of the baccalaureate not as an endpoint but as a bridge, it makes perfect sense.
No, the biggest surprise and challenge is that it’s caused us to think long and hard about what we do in the lower division. For the foreseeable future it’s likely only a relatively small percentage of our two-year students will go on to the BTAD. Our first upper division cohort entered questioning why we required courses such as Mass Communications when what they really wanted was to get better at Photoshop, Dreamweaver, Flash, CATIA, Revit or AutoCAD. The technical component of their A.A.S. studies had led to such workplace success that students unsurprisingly saw the path to more success as more technical skills.
But that’s not what employers are telling us. Employers tell us they want critical thinking, teamwork and communication skills. They want leaders and innovators — and, by the way, everybody should be entrepreneurial. The times call for a new type of worker: one we sometimes call the “accidental entrepreneur.” These folks never expected to own their own business, or hopscotch employment from project to project, or to continually reinvent themselves. Lead faculty member Steve Ater says what we do is prepare students to “surf the chaos.”
So how can we deliver this education, providing the broad foundation expected of a baccalaureate-educated citizen combined with razor-sharp technical, practical and soft skills? It was inevitable that we look at the entire four years holistically. What if we beefed up the theory in the lower division and rather than using design projects to teach the technology, reversed the model? The hope is that incoming BTAD students will adjust more readily to the upper division.
We value our educational partnerships with Adobe, Autodesk, and others; they help us stay abreast of rapidly changing industries. In fact, we’ve incorporated technical certification such as the Adobe Certified Associate into our coursework. However, we cannot simply chase technology education, either in the upper or lower division. The shelf life of technical skills is 18 months. What we aim to do is teach a design process which will serve students regardless of technical change; to give them the skills and confidence to continually add to their repertoire once they’ve exited to the workplace — and prepare to re-enter for more education when the need arises. We hope to turn out tomorrow’s creative thinkers, innovators and entrepreneurs.
LWTC Interim President David Woodall sees it this way: “The pathways process allows our students to enter or exit at many points along a curricular progression. Students may enter while still in high school to begin their technical education prior to high school graduation. We offer certificates at various levels, associate degrees and a bachelor’s degree. We encourage our students to use the elements of our programs that fit their current professional development needs.”
Launching a bachelor degree has been rewarding, exhausting and an utterly natural extension of the teaching and learning that goes on every day in two-year institutions across the country. America’s community and technical colleges can play an important role in baccalaureate education — and in the process, enrich the college experience for our “traditional” two-year students at the same time.
Recognizing the direction our institution is heading, the Washington State Legislature recently approved a name change. In July, we’ll become Lake Washington Institute of Technology.
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Q: What are the challenges and benefits of starting a bachelor’s degree program?