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Originally published October 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 28, 2007 at 7:19 PM

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Community colleges changing course as students, needs shift

Even as they become more traditional in ways, schools are carving out specialty areas to educate professionals of all ages.

Seattle Times higher education reporter

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Prominent community-college alumni in this state include University of Washington President Mark Emmert (Green River); Washington's "first gentleman" Mike Gregoire (Everett); former Starbucks executive Orin Smith (Centralia); and former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice (Highline).

After high school, Melissa Pederson yearned for a traditional college experience. So she moved into campus housing with roommates from around the world and immersed herself in her wooded, secluded school.

Yet Pederson's move was far from typical: She was among the first students in King County to live on a community-college campus. Now finishing her sophomore studies at Green River Community College in Auburn, Pederson, 20, is one of a growing number of students taking advantage of shifts in the mission and approach of two-year colleges.

Around the country, community colleges are trying to adapt to increasing demand from young students and, in some cases, are beginning to resemble university campuses. Many community colleges are attempting to provide a broader approach to learning, even in specialty trades. That's because today's workers are expected to be more flexible and will likely change jobs and responsibilities more often.

Community colleges have a particularly strong presence here. According to 2005 data from the U.S. Department of Education, some 64 percent of Washington students attending a public college for the first time choose a community college over a four-year — a figure eclipsed only in California.

Washington ranks fourth in the nation for awarding associate degrees but just 30th for bachelor's degrees. And each year, 463,000 Washingtonians — one in 15 of all the people living in the state — attend at least one class at a community college.

Yet distinguishing among two-year colleges can still prove challenging.

Living on campus

As of last week, Green River had just four vacancies among the 340 beds available at the Campus Corner Apartments, where Pederson and other students share furnished four-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouses. Rooms and utilities typically cost students $560 a month. And students can lease by the academic year or quarter.

Green River is not alone in dabbling in traditional university territory. Edmonds Community College, which already leases some apartments, is building a housing complex with 156 beds, due to open in fall 2009. Seattle Central Community College is negotiating with a developer to build about 75 apartments on Broadway, while South Seattle Community College is studying whether to offer housing.

The housing boom is driven largely by community colleges' desire to accommodate international students and the higher tuition they bring. But the colleges have found there's also a demand from younger, local students.

While community colleges have long attracted "nontraditional" older students, at Green River the median age of students is now just 22 — reflective of a national trend toward younger students.

"There's a bubble of traditional-age students who are coming in greater numbers," said Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Community Colleges. "Partly it's the cheaper cost, and partly it's that so many of them can't be accommodated at traditional universities."

Skagit Valley College has even set up a section on its Web site called "No Parent Left Behind" to explain the college-going process to concerned parents of younger students — sometimes dubbed "helicopter parents" for their hovering involvement.

Given population trends, Kent said, she doesn't necessarily expect the bubble of young students to last. But there's an increased push to educate professionals of all ages, she added. Think, for instance, of the service technician at your local garage.

"It's not your traditional grease monkey," Kent said. "It's someone who knows how to do a computational diagnosis of engines."

Kent has noticed a second bubble of students at the other end of the spectrum — in the 50-plus age range. She said baby boomers are more likely than previous generations to seek job retraining or to study for enjoyment.

This academic year marks another major change in this state. Four community colleges — including Bellevue and South Seattle — have launched a pilot program in which they offer limited four-year bachelor degrees — something that had been the exclusive turf of universities. And colleges are pursuing students young and old by offering classes in everything from winemaking to nanotechnology.

Choosing a college

While most students across the state are limited by geography to the closest college, students in the Seattle area can choose from among a dozen community colleges within a roughly 30-mile radius.

Many of those colleges are attempting to carve out niche specialties — from dental hygiene to aviation. The state Board for Community and Technical Colleges is promoting specialization through a "Centers of Excellence" program that seeks, in part, to eliminate program duplication. The board in February plans to launch a one-stop Web site that will allow students to compare programs across all of the state's 34 two-year colleges.

Choosing among community colleges can present challenges, however. While national rankings such as those issued each year by U.S. News & World Report — along with a wealth of other information — can help students distinguish among universities, there are fewer established methods to choose among two-year colleges.

Seattle-area colleges have fared well by some measures. In 2001, Time magazine chose Seattle Central Community College among its four "Colleges of the Year." And this year, the Washington Monthly magazine rated Cascadia Community College in Bothell among the best community colleges in the nation based on student feedback and graduation rates — although the rankings appear to ignore hundreds of colleges that didn't participate in the student survey.

In this state, about 48 percent of full-time and part-time students attend community colleges to improve their job skills, while 30 percent intend to transfer to a four-year school. Another 13 percent — a figure that is growing — are in class to get basic language or math skills. Among full-time students only, a higher ratio intends to transfer.

Shifting interests

In a laboratory at North Seattle Community College, Robyn Severson peers through protective goggles at pieces of copper coated with a single layer of molecules that either repel or absorb water.

Severson is taking an introductory class on nanotechnology, the type of course usually associated with four-year colleges. In fact, one of his classmates already has a chemistry degree from the University of Washington but wants to find out more about the emerging subject, the study of materials so tiny they're measured in billionths of a meter.

"I've always had a real fascination with science," Severson said, adding that at home he has tinkered with a lightning generator and video X-ray machines.

Severson is just 17 years old and a student at Nathan Hale High School. He is one of 17,000 high-school students enrolled in Running Start, a program that allows juniors and seniors to take college classes and earn credits. The program has exploded, tripling in size since the mid-1990s.

Deane Seeger, 55, is a student at the other end of the age spectrum, studying winemaking at South Seattle Community College. Last week, he helped dump cabernet sauvignon grapes into a hopper that removes the stems.

The college's winemaking program is proving popular, nearly doubling in size to about 24 students in this, its third year. One of the student-made wines even won a silver award at the 2007 Seattle Wine Awards.

Seeger, of West Seattle, is typical of many of the students who see winemaking as a second or third career, or perhaps a retirement hobby. Seeger hopes to retire on 10 acres of land in Oregon, where he has planted pinot noir grapes.

Another student, Denise Andrews, is a policy analyst at Seattle Public Utilities. But she would love to own a boutique winery. So she took a year's sabbatical to do an internship in California's Napa Valley for "the last crush of '06."

"It's chemistry and art," she said of winemaking. "You have to love to drink wine."

Opening doors

In this state, community-college leaders are trying to cope with a big increase in demand for basic education, both from new immigrants and manual workers, said Charlie Earl, the executive director of the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

More businesses are taking a hands-on role in educating students, through programs such as Job Skills and Customized Employee Training. The state and employer often provide dollar-for-dollar funding matches, and students are trained in exactly the skills a specific employer seeks, typically getting jobs with that company after graduating.

Earl said in the future he expects to work even more closely with the K-12 system through programs such as Running Start to ease the transition for students moving from high school to college. He's also hoping to improve basic-education offerings, so that, for instance, students can learn literacy and job skills at the same time rather than sequentially.

At Green River, meanwhile, Melissa Pederson, who grew up in Kent, is hoping to transfer to a university next year to finish a bachelor's degree in sociology. She said living at Green River with Japanese students has broadened her appreciation for other cultures and has "opened a lot of doors." She's also learned some basics about living with others.

"For one thing, it's learning not to leave a mess all over the house like I did at my parents' house," she said.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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