Walla Walla Community College aspires to offer our first applied bachelor’s degrees by the fall of 2018. We are in the process of conducting a needs assessment to determine what potential workforce programs might benefit our students and regional employers if they were expanded to four-year programs.

Initially our thought is to explore applied bachelor’s in business and agriculture — two occupational fields critical to the vitality of our communities and aligned with our economic base.

At my last community college, we noticed our information technology students were not being hired. When we asked employers, they told us that they preferred bachelor-prepared students and that they wanted students with more applied knowledge than they were receiving from existing four-year college programs.

 So we developed an applied bachelor’s program in information technology to produce the skilled workforce employers wanted and to develop students for the careers they wanted. It has proved to be a perfect match.

Had we not moved in the direction of applied bachelor’s, I am convinced our program would have closed due to low enrollment. Students are attracted to workforce programs that lead to living-wage jobs.

Applied bachelor’s programs are a growing trend in the Community and Technical College System in Washington state. In 2008, the CTC system piloted four applied bachelor’s programs.

Currently, 24 of the 34 community and technical colleges have approved applied bachelor’s degree programs.

Since applied bachelor’s programs have been introduced in the CTC system, we have seen those programs contribute to high retention rates. In 2015, applied bachelor’s programs retained or graduated an average of 81 percent of their fall quarter enrollment.

Students with applied bachelor’s degrees had higher employment rates than their counterparts with associate degrees in the same technical area. Graduates of applied bachelor’s programs had higher earnings as well (average difference between $3,700 and $27,000 annually, depending on the program).

Applied bachelor programs are also contributing to improved access to higher education. Students of color are participating in applied bachelor’s programs at an equivalent or higher rate than in colleges’ associate degree workforce programs.

The Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges envisions that applied bachelor’s degree programs will increase educational pathways for professional-technical associate graduates who have in the past been limited in their ability to apply credits toward a bachelor’s degree.

SBCTC anticipates that the development of applied bachelor’s degrees will assist in meeting state goals for increasing the total number of bachelor’s degrees awarded by two-year and four-year institutions to 42,400 per year. In order to do this, the CTC system will need to increase the number of students who transfer to bachelor’s programs by 25 percent and increase the number of applied bachelor graduates to 1,400 by the year 2030.

To offer applied bachelor degrees, Walla Walla Community College will begin an approximately 18-month process. The first step will be to develop a statement of need that is open to comment for 30 days by other bachelor granting institutions and then approval by the SBCTC.

After the statement of need is approved, WWCC will begin the development of a program proposal. The program proposal needs to show the program has the appropriate rigor, qualified faculty, a well thought out admissions process and student services plan, an institutional commitment to build and sustain a high quality program, ensure that the program can articulate to programs beyond the bachelor level, and must have two external evaluations of the program. The program proposal also must be approved by the SBCTC.

After SBCTC approvals, we would then seek approval from our accrediting body, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, and from the Department of Education.

As we begin our journey toward applied bachelor degrees, I want to assure the community that we are not seeking to change our mission at WWCC. We are seeking to strengthen our workforce mission by expanding it to further our national reputation as being responsive to the workforce and economic development needs of our region.

Derek Brandes is president of Walla Walla Community College. He can be reached at derek.brandes@wwcc.edu.