Spokane Journal of Business

Acumen, agility in education

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-—Linn Parish
Chancellor Christine Johnson says Community Colleges of Spokane should play a pivotal part in growing the region’s workforce.

The new school year might be starting to shift into high gear now, but Community Colleges of Spokane Chancellor Christine Johnson speeds around the Spokane business community year-round. 

Johnson stays heavily involved in business and civic groups while leading the community college district that covers most of Eastern Washington and includes Spokane Community College, in East Spokane, and Spokane Falls Community College, in northwest Spokane. Together, the two schools serve almost 12,500 students annually, second only to Eastern Washington University in terms of college students served in Spokane County.

We caught up with Johnson recently to talk about the community colleges’ role in the business community and in workforce development. 

Journal: What do you see the community colleges’ role being in the Inland Northwest business community?

Christine Johnson: I see the community colleges as the key to keeping the workforce we have and to attracting and training the workforce we need in the future. We consider ourselves a pivotal part of what is going to keep this economy strong and growing. 

How does the community college accomplish that? What is it that you’re doing to that end?

CJ: Well, one of the many strengths of community colleges in general, and CCS in particular, is that our job is to be responsive to our local communities. In doing so, our job is to be out there meeting with employers. All kinds of employers. Business. Industry. Nonprofit. Community minded. Government and so forth. We do that to make sure our students are being prepared in ways that meet the needs. 

We tend to start new programs and phase them out when there isn’t the demand. We stay current on the technologies. Many fields are fast changing. 

We also are sensitive to the economy. We look at our pricing and our programs and ask, can we accelerate programs? Can we make them shorter so that students can get on with their lives, either getting that next job or getting that next level of education? 

So, we do it by being innovative, by being entrepreneurial, and by being responsive. 

What types of degrees are your students pursuing? 

CJ: We have many two-year degrees where the plan isn’t to go on to a baccalaureate, and those are our applied associates. We have the AA, the associates of arts. The plan is to go here two years and then to move on. Then we have the certificate programs.

Forty percent of our students are in transfer programs, so their plan is to move on to the next level. It might be Gonzaga. It might be WSU. It might be out of state, but that is their plan. 

The majority of our students are here with the mindset of, I’m here to get a job. Or I’m here to get to that next level or that promotion.

That’s generally the breakdown, but it can fluctuate from year to year. 

What are your most popular programs currently? 

CJ: The most popular programs, hands down, are in the health sector. Students are very smart. They want jobs, so that’s where they go.

The next area is really what our regional economy is based on: aerospace, manufacturing, and IT. We have business degrees, but they really feed into the other areas too. 

They pretty much reflect our regional economy, and that’s the purpose of community colleges. We’re trying to serve this region of Washington and the state as a whole, so we’re very in tune with what’s happening regionally.

Within health care, what are some of the areas where you see the most interest?

CJ: For us, nursing is a big one. And there are all kinds of levels of nursing. There are the RNs, of course, then there are LPNs, and certified nursing assistants. 

Everything in health care is externally accredited, so our students are taking exactly the same exam to be licensed as the students at Washington State University or Gonzaga or anywhere else. It’s the same exam. The students have to prepare for the level of licensing they want, and it’s more rigorous the higher they go.

What have your enrollment trends been in recent years? 

CJ: Community college enrollments tend to be countercyclical to the economy. When the economy is doing well, students would rather work than go to school. Or they take part time. When the economy is bad, more people say, ‘I need to train to do something else.’ So enrollment is softening.

We are fortunate with all the things we’re doing, enrollment at Spokane Falls has been very strong. Its mission is primarily transfer, as opposed to workforce, so it’s been strong. At SCC, it’s been softer. We did not meet the state target there last year, and it’s been really close this year. 

We’re going to meet the state target as a district, but there has been some softening. 

What’s the split between SCC and SFCC in terms of number of students?

CJ: SCC is almost twice as large as SFCC in terms of overall enrollment. They’re trying to both serve the needs but have some uniqueness of two different colleges.

Would it be logical to assume then that you see more people going straight from high school to SFCC then? 

CJ: Yes, it’s a little younger. We have more recent high school graduates select SFCC. 

The average age of students at SCC is 31. We actually have a lot of students who have degrees from local universities and don’t find jobs, then come to SCC to get a practical degree. 

What do you see as the trends in your industry right now? Are you swapping out programs faster than you have in the past? 

What we are doing that is keeping enrollment up—other community colleges across the country are seeing huge dips in enrollment, double-digit drops in enrollment. We know that innovating programs and redesigning them is important. It’s really about redesign and updating the programs. That’s what keeps us strong and responsive. 

It’s not only redesigning the programs, but making them shorter. One of the things we have is a competency-based degree. That’s kind of a new, hot thing. Instead of saying to students, you have to take these 20 classes, we’ll say, ‘Ok, you’ve worked in journalism. You are just working on your journalism degree, but you’ve done some things in it.’ Maybe you don’t have to take every class. We’ll test you and see what you know. It’s called a prior learning assessment and giving student credit either for prior work experience or training they have received from other places. 

It shortens the degree, so we’re not having you taking something you already know. You don’t sit in class because it’s required. That is attracting students, because time is money and we are aware of that. We want them to have all of the knowledge, but if they bring some with them, they shouldn’t have to redo it. 

But our faculty has to certify it. We have to test. You did a job, but did that job give you actual knowledge? We’re looking at the outcomes of that job. 

By doing things differently, we’re helping students finish their credentials. 

I’m curious about graduation rate. How is your graduation rate? 

CJ: About 26 percent finish in two years or more. But only about 10 percent of our students are full time. Most university students are there full time. Ten percent of our students are here full time, taking 15 credits or more at a time. Everybody else, 90 percent of them, are taking one class, two classes. It’s going to take you longer. 

How much of what you do is in classroom versus online at this point? And how do you see that changing? 

CJ: It’s changing. It doesn’t change for every single program, but there is huge interest from students for all kinds of reasons. The technologies are better. We know a lot more about the brain and how people learn. There is so much more knowledge than when universities were created and we did the lectures and everything in class. 

My vision is, I wish we could offer every certificate or degree in five or six modalities. Traditional. Accelerated. Online. Hybrid. Competency based. So students have a way to choose what fits them. 

The technology is so advanced. What can be done now, it’s amazing. When I first came here, I had a few members of faculty who said we couldn’t do science online. I came from the University of Colorado, where they were doing medicine online. Why do you think we can do that online but not a science lab? We’re learning. 

It’s what makes our role really exciting. There’s a lot going on.

It’s huge. Because we now  have programs  online—and I don’t want classes online; I want degrees online—we now have students from every county in the state. We didn’t before. We serve such a broad area. We serve students who live in Ione, 14 miles from the Canadian border. We either offer them things online, or they don’t go. We really have a responsibility to our service area, but beyond that, we have a responsibility to anybody who might want what we offer. 

Facilitywise right now, how are you set? 

CJ: We always want more, but to be honest, we need a lot more investment to make sure our technology is current. A lot of our programs, whether it’s manufacturing or construction or health, the equipment we have to work with needs to be updated continually. It’s not like we say, ‘Oh, we finally have our 3-D printer.’ It’s continually  updating and improving, and they need to be job ready at Boeing or Itron or wherever they go. The equipment itself is changing constantly. That is part of the infrastructure community colleges really have to pay attention to. What students learn on has to be current. 

You talk about being connected to business, and my perception is that you are at a lot of events. Are those part of the same thing?

CJ: I see it as a responsibility and duty. It’s in our DNA. Our job is to serve and to understand what’s working and what’s not working. We have a responsibility to know how our students do once they get on the job. We really want to know, and that’s how we get feedback. 

Are there any programs that you’re looking at adding?

CJ: There always a long list of them. We’re very attuned to the STEM economy, and we know there’s a shortage of IT professionals. That’s an area. Some people tell us they want to hire women, but there are few women in IT, sadly. So, how do we starting attracting women to that program?

The growth in our field is all of these interdisciplinary fields. How do we build that science discipline for students at lower levels? 

In business and academics, we’re all looking at more data analytics. How do we develop the people who can find that and interpret, what does that mean?

We have more ideas than money. To find money, we look for programs to close out or phase out because there is less demand. That’s one of the ways we do that. 

Tell me a little bit about your background.

CJ: I’m a career educator. I started out on the K-12 side. I started as a high school English teacher, then I earned more degrees, was a high school principal, then an assistant superintendent. I got into the policy side, then the higher ed side. 

Community colleges have become my passion because I’ve thought, here is the group that moves fastest to solve problems. And we take students at any stage of their life. 

I was president of the community college in Denver and vice president of the state system. I helped start a lot of programs and then the online version for Community Colleges of  Colorado. That was kind of my baby.

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Editor Linn Parish has worked for newspapers and magazines since 1996, with the bulk of that time being at the Journal. A Montana boy who has called Spokane home for some time now, Linn likes Northwest trails, Deep South foods, and lead changes in the ninth inning.

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