Walla Walla Valley residents know we are fortunate to call such a beautiful place our home. With many cultural and outdoor opportunities, plus growing industries that offer family-wage job opportunities, our area offers a high quality of life.

Individuals who want to build their lives here can look forward to job openings in health care and education, in our booming wine industry, as well as in construction and manufacturing.

To be ready for these jobs, our high school students and interested adults will need to continue their education.

In coming years, about two-thirds of the family-wage jobs in our state will be filled with workers who have a credential beyond a high school diploma, such as a degree, apprenticeship, or certificate in a specific industry.

Knowing this, we noted with concern a recent report from Washington STEM and the Mid-Columbia STEM Network showing that fewer than two in five of our region’s youngest members will earn such a credential by the time they are 26.

The rate of credential attainment falls short even further for students of color — just 23 percent of our Latinx students in the class of 2015 will complete education or training after high school — and for students from low-income families, whose completion rate is 24 percent.

The future health of our regional economy depends upon boosting these rates.

Today, a postsecondary credential is the greatest driver of economic mobility and access to family-wage jobs. Studies show that a credential after high school is one of the strongest indicators of lifetime earnings, and the best investment to guard against a lifetime of limited options.

One of the strongest investments we can make as a community is to ensure that our students have the support they need to pursue education and training that will enable them to prepare for careers.

The College Promise Coalition — of which Whitman College, Walla Walla Community College and Walla Walla University are members — is working collaboratively across sectors and across the state to implement strategies that support students who face barriers to entering and completing postsecondary education.

For example, expanding the pathways into postsecondary opportunities will enable more students to pursue credentials. The Coalition is working to expand access and reduce financial barriers to programs that enable students to earn college credit in high school, as well as connect learning to career possibilities.

The Coalition also supports critical financial aid programs such as the State Need Grant, College Bound, State Work-Study, and others.

We have made progress. Last year, the Legislature increased funding for the State Need Grant by $18.5 million with a path to full funding over four years. In his 2019-2021 budget proposal, Gov. Jay Inslee seeks to accelerate this move toward full and predictable funding for the State Need Grant, with a proposed new name — Washington College Promise Scholarship.

During this legislative session, the Coalition’s members will be working together to advance and fund policies that will support more of our students to pursue the postsecondary training or education they need to succeed.

Kathy Murray is president, Whitman College; John McVay is president, Walla Walla University; Derek Brandes is president, Walla Walla Community College; and Pat Reay is executive director of the Port of Walla Walla.

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