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Originally published Sunday, May 2, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Budget cuts challenge Bellevue College's big ambitions

Bellevue College, the state's largest community college, has scaled back ambitious plans to expand its offerings on top of absorbing $2.3 million in cuts this year.

Seattle Times Eastside reporter

Bellevue College

Basics: The state's largest community college was founded in 1966. The main campus at 3000 Landerholm Circle sits on 96 acres. Roughly 34,000 students enroll annually.

Degrees: Bellevue College offers transfer associate degrees in 58 focus areas; professional and technical associate degrees in 95 areas; a bachelor of applied science in radiation and imaging sciences; a bachelor of applied arts in interior design; worker-training programs; and an associate degree program in occupational life skills for students with learning, cognitive and intellectual disabilities.

Transfers: In 2008-09, roughly 10 percent of all community- and technical-college transfer students who moved to public, four-year universities in the state came from Bellevue College — more than any other college.

Source: Bellevue College

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President Jean Floten has big ambitions for Bellevue College. She's taken steps to add four-year degrees to the school's offerings, and she's even dropped the word "community" from the school's name — part of her effort to bring sweeping change to community-college education in the state.

For now, though, those ambitions have run smack into the state's budget problems.

The state's largest community college is figuring out how to absorb $2.3 million in cuts this year. The cuts also have delayed plans for a new health and science education building on the 96-acre main campus, and the school has increased tuition 7 percent for the roughly 35,000 students who enroll every year.

While Bellevue College has hunkered down, it hasn't abandoned its vision. Floten says the school will continue to expand its mix of four-year degrees along with the more traditional two-year programs.

Applied four-year bachelor's programs in interior design and radiation and imaging sciences are now a permanent feature, thanks to action this year by the Legislature. Floten plans to ask the Legislature to fund another applied bachelor's program next year.

Applied degrees sometimes are called "upside down" degrees because students learn technical skills their first two years and add general education requirements later.

Floten maintains that community colleges are slowly but surely moving toward a future where they offer general bachelor's of arts or science degrees as well, traditionally the domain of four-year schools such as the University of Washington.

"To me, being able to attend to a community's needs is the important thing rather than holding so tenaciously to a taxonomy that may not be serving residents or a community," Floten said.

She eventually wants the Legislature to grant Bellevue College permission to offer more traditional four-year degrees in liberal arts, sciences and education. That plan has run into opposition from the UW.

Floten says community colleges aren't in competition with the UW for those students. Community-college students are often older, have jobs or families, or don't have the resources, flexibility or finances to attend a traditional four-year school.

For a full-time student taking 12 credits, Bellevue College students pay $956 for the quarter. UW students spend $2,564.

With state unemployment at record levels, demand at colleges is rising. Bellevue College already has enrolled 16 percent more students this year.

Growing demand

The state is struggling to keep up with the need for all types of diplomas, from technical two-year degrees to Ph.D.s. Washington ranks 37th among states in the number of bachelor's degrees it awards per capita, according to the state Higher Education Coordinating Board.

The state's current goal is to award 10,000 more students bachelor's degrees per year by 2018, or a 36 percent increase from current levels.

Bellevue College last year proposed the creation of a hybrid community-college model that would include bachelor's of arts or science degrees to help address the state's need.

But UW officials argued the state should invest in existing universities and branch campuses. The bill died in committee.

Bellevue College this year was part a statewide group that recommended ways to add more college degrees.

The Legislature passed the recommendations, including making permanent the applied-degrees programs. The bill also said university branch campuses should be the priority when it comes to more slots for students seeking traditional bachelor's degrees.

Doug Wadden, UW's executive vice provost for academic affairs and planning, said branch campuses at Bothell and Tacoma have not been funded as they should have been, and the university is focused on growing programs there.

"After 20 years," he said, "the investments have not been made. There's enormous potential there."

The state also has limited resources, he said, and it would be a "mistake" to spread it out too much, Wadden said.

He said he hasn't talked to Bellevue College about that school adding bachelor's degrees.

"For us, speculation of what might be necessary or advantageous 15 or 20 years out is difficult to do," Wadden said. "Right now we're trying to survive a very, very difficult fiscal environment."

Community colleges and universities naturally rely upon each other, said Jan Yoshiwara, deputy executive director for education at the state board for community and technical colleges, with about 40 percent of university students transferring from community college.

But with less money to go around, there can be tension about who is funded, she said.

"In our minds, it has not been a competition with universities," Yoshiwara said. "In our minds, it has been about filling gaps they have not been able to fill."

In a 2009 survey of more than 600 Bellevue College students, 82 percent said they supported having more four-year degrees, said Marcus Sweetser, 23, who was the student government's legislative director in Olympia this past session.

"We're not really necessarily about who's competing with who for a degree," he said. "Competition is good. It gives us options, and the most efficient, best school for the price. As students, we're saying the more degrees offered, the better."

Former state Sen. Fred Jarrett, one of the sponsors of the hybrid Bellevue College bill, said he believes the distinctions between community colleges and universities are based more on the communities they serve. Community colleges respond to demands from local employers, while UW, for example, still will produce aerospace engineers.

"I still see the applied baccalaureate or even a bachelor's from one of the colleges to be something that's very different than a bachelor's from UW or even UW Bothell," he said.

But it will take time for people to become accustomed to the idea of community colleges offering more four-year degrees, he said.

Community colleges statewide say they plan to move forward with more applied bachelor's programs. There are eight pilot applied programs so far at seven community colleges, including a hospitality-management program at South Seattle Community College.

"It's going to really encourage us to be innovative in how we're thinking about our programs and pathways," said Jill Wakefield, chancellor of Seattle Community Colleges.

Floten said she is more consumed with budget cuts than with adding more bachelor's degrees, but she sees more bachelor's degrees down the road.

And despite the cuts, Floten plans to ask the Legislature next session to fund a new applied degree in a health-care field.

New programs cost $50,000 to $100,000 to launch, she said, but with the new national health-care law, hospitals are anticipating greater demand, and she wants to help meet it.

"We're looking at the next bar for community-college education," Floten said.

Nicole Tsong: 206-464-2150 or ntsong@seattletimes.com

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