Monday, February 9, 2015

A Community Conversation with SPSCC President Timothy Stokes

Above: South Puget Sound Community College President Timothy Stokes

“It’s an exciting time to be a community college president,” laughed South Puget Sound Community College (SPSCC) President Timothy Stokes.
Meeting with a handful of community members at a Lacey area coffee shop two weeks ago, Stokes revealed several new announcements and how the innovation and inclusiveness of a community college can change individual lives and the face of a whole community.

In the candid, wide ranging conversation, former Lacey mayor Graeme Sackrison told Stokes that he was a mediocre student in high school and his father wasn’t sure if he was a good investment.
“So, he said, ‘If you can make it through the first two years of college, then we’ll help you with the remainder.’”
So, Sackrison went to Centralia Community College for two years, worked at Miller’s Department in downtown Olympia store fulltime, then transferred to Western Washington University and graduated in 1966.

“…But it was clear to me that, without the community college and low tuition, it wouldn’t have been possible, so I’m a big fan of the community college system,” said Sackrison.
“That’s our story, right there,” responded Stokes.

Stokes was versed in all aspects of the college’s history, and seems well prepared to be part of its future.
On the job for just two years and one full week, Stokes came to Thurston County after serving in the community college system in Tacoma for 10 years, and in several other states.
“It was harder in Pierce County where there are five community colleges – it’s easy here in Thurston County.…It’s a pretty good gig,” he laughed. The position pays $161,875, according to an Office of Financial Management 2013 Report.

Above: SPSCC’s newest building on campus is Gold LEED certified. The 90,000 square foot, $43 million center for student services is a far cry from the surplus portables provided to SPSCC from Joint Base Lewis McChord. “We’re down to two portables and we hope they will be gone next month - it’s time for them to go!” says SPSCC President Timothy Stokes.
SPSCC Beginnings
The college on Mottman Road has come a long way since its humble beginnings.
In September 1962, the Olympia School District founded the current college as Olympia Vocational Technical Institute (OVTI) in the Montgomery Ward Building in downtown Olympia. OVTI was the formalization of the adult education offerings the school district began offering in 1957 out of Olympia High School. Anticipating growth, the school district had the foresight to move OVTI out to the sticks in 1971.
The college now offers several associate degrees and certificates. Enrollment statistics as of Fall quarter lists 5,842 students total (4,129 full time); 758 Running Start students, and 151 international students.
The campus sits on 102 acres, has 19 buildings, three of which are Gold LEED certified. The Hawks Prairie Center, opened in 1995, will be closed and students will be relocated to the new Lacey campus in the Woodland District. Occupancy in the new digs is scheduled for the Fall of 2015.
Stokes ticked off the college’s successes and looks forward to its role in creating a smarter workforce to compete in today’s job market. The community college is now a hub of innovation and entrepreneurship, serving as a point of entry for a diverse population and a catalyst for business development needs.
And they were doing all this before President Obama announced his new initiative, “America’s College Promise” in early January to provide "free" community college tuition for eligible students, up to $3,800 per year.
SPSCC's in-state tuition is $4,470 and $9,861 for out-of-state students. Estimated book expenses, supplies and other needs total about $4,000.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Are community college presidents for free tuition?’ And the answer is yes, we are, absolutely we are. We’re all in…we think that it will be a great investment in the future and keeping us competitive in the global marketplace. It’s a struggle for our students to pay for tuition. Our tuition has gone up…so, (according to Obama’s plan) after the first $3,800 is paid, there’s $600 left to pay for a year, so that’s $200 a quarter.”
Diverse Student Population
SPSCC caters to a diverse population, mostly transfer and workforce students. Military and those who need basic skills make up the rest. Former service members and transition enrollment has doubled due to Joint Base Lewis McChord in the last two years. Previously, they went north to Pierce College.

SPSCC’s ethnic make-up also adds to the college’s diversity: 23.18 percent are International, African American, Asian or Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Multi-racial, Native American or Alaskan Native.  The Caucasian population is 61.5 percent, and the rest is unknown.
“Our placement rate and transfers to a four year college or a job is at 96 percent, the rest are just coming to enhance their skills – 65 percent graduate with a credential – very high for a two year college. On average it’s 46 percent.” The time it takes is about 2.2 to 3 years.
As for meeting the basic literacy needs of some students, Stokes says the fastest growing population we have is low literacy adults, “because there is no employment for adults with low literacy….Having worked in Tacoma for 10 years, I’d say our students are coming out of high school in Thurston County well qualified and college ready.”
“Half of our students are planning to transfer to a four year institution…40 percent are workforce students – those are students getting a two year degree with an Associate in Arts for a marketable, high wage job.”
Stokes listed several educational degree and credential options include nursing, medical assisting, automotive service engineering, welding, computer aided design, dentistry and much more.
Legislative Issues and Budgetary Concerns
Asked what role he is playing during the state Legislative session, Stokes said he has 117 bills on his watch list. He’s introduced several new legislators to the community college system.

Stokes says his message is: "Even though you have a big issue in front of you, (the McCleary decision) those students have to go somewhere when they graduate. You can’t continue to cut higher ed, increase tuition, and expect to continue to have the graduation rates that we have."
There are several reasons for tuition increases, said Stokes.  SPSCC’s budget has been cut over 29 percent in the last three years and 46 percent in the last five years. The state used to fund 85 percent of their budget and tuition made up the rest.  Now the state provides 50 percent of the budget. The cost of health care benefits and retirement system costs are also factors.

“We try to be fair and equitable and our adjunct faculty receive health care benefits - one of the only states in the nation that pays health care for adjunct faculty. They also invest in our retirement system costs,” says Stokes.

Regarding the budget, Stokes said, “We like the governor’s (Jay Inslee's) budget in that it doesn’t propose cuts to the community college system, but there’s a little piece we’re having conversations about. His budget proposes a three percent salary increase to all our employees, which we certainly support - we haven’t had one for six years – but it directs that it would come out of tuition and the tuition has already increased to backfill from the cuts they’ve already made.”

Stokes’ goal is to not raise tuition for the next five years.
Asked what his immediate challenges are, Stokes said the college needs to unload their 53 acre property in Hawks Prairie before it can complete the Lacey campus in five years. The property was bought in anticipation of  becoming an SPSCC satellite branch. They had intentions to share intercollegiate athletic facilities John Paul II High School.

Another challenge is that despite the increased need for health care programs, mental health, and chemical dependency counseling/training, Stokes says they were graduating students in those low paying fields with substantial debt. It was this ethical dilemma on how much debt can you burden a student with that led to the closure of SPSCC’s horticultural program.
“Looking at higher wages, we can do some partnership programs where there will be an extension program in health care in the next few years, and in occupational therapy and physical therapy assistance.”
The New and Improved Nursing Program
Asked about the loss of accreditation for the nursing program, which occurred just as Stokes took over the college presidency, Stokes said there hasn’t been a big impact. He said that out of 23 community college nursing programs in the state, nine are no longer accredited.
“It was a very dated nursing education program… and the program had been on probation for six years,” says Stokes.
“National accreditation is not required to be a licensed nursing program in Washington but we felt it was important to stop the program and re-design it. We will be applying for the new accreditation - we have to have two years of graduates – and we did increase our student’s pass rate for the state certification test from a 76 percent pass rate to 100 percent. We hired a new director from Oregon – a top notch educator – and we’re rebuilding the program.”
Stokes knows that the prerequisites to get into SPSCC’s nursing program are higher than at other community colleges and was pleased to announce yet another recent success:
“We will be the first college to implement the “three plus one” program to get a Bachelor of Science in Nursing. We just signed a state agreement and got approval and of all 34 colleges eligible to participate, we’re the first to produce the program. So even though it was hard, it was necessary to increase the quality of our graduates and it was the right time because we’ll be the first to produce this three plus one program. It will put more Bachelor of Science Nurses out there (in the job market) and that’s becoming the standard for entry into the practice. They will leave SPSCC with three years education and finish up with one year at St. Martin’s University.”
SPSCC’s New Lacey Woodland District Campus
Stokes is perhaps most excited about a new partnership between SPSCC and the Thurston Economic Development Council and the creation of a new 125,000 square foot campus in what is becoming downtown Lacey in the Woodland District near College and Sixth Avenue.

The area across the street from the Lacey Intercity Transit station, Fred Meyer, Dancing Goats Coffee and many other businesses near South Center Mall is set to be a hub of student activity.
“The city is very happy about us being their first $20 million investor in their revitalization plan…the project is going really well. We’re rehabbing a former state office building of the state Department of Information Systems. We had an option of tearing everything down and building new but we decided to rehab the buildings because we just think it’s better for the environment.
“A developer has bought three vacant state office buildings in Woodland – his plan is to put retail on the first floor and create student housing for St. Martin’s College. The area will be a place to live, learn, work, and play - 750 students and 10,000 state employees will be coming through that facility for training - very exciting.”
A new advanced manufacturing program started in January on the new Lacey campus.
“As we look at the Boeing expansion – Fredrickson is going to make the winglet – the turn up on the wings and they are going to have to produce thousands of those -  we’re concerned because it will pull the skilled workforce out of Thurston County so we opened that program to help replace some of that advanced manufacturing labor in the community. They are great jobs – on average if you have a three dimensional certificate, you can earn $75,000 – $80,000 a year,” says Stokes.

Also new is the adding of an entrepreneurship program to all occupational courses. The college is also forging partnerships with manufacturing companies such as H20 Jet and Diamond Technologies, and received a one million dollar National Science Foundation grant to buy equipment for a lab in the lower level of building three.
“It’s a stunningly beautiful lab,” gushed Stokes.
Community Collaboration
Also in the Woodland District, the Thurston County Economic Development Center’s South Thurston Economic Development Initiative and SPSCC will collaborate to create a small development center. To help small businesses grow, senior executives will go out to the community and help people start businesses or more importantly, counsel them to “gazelle” their businesses.
“….So if a business is making $75,000 - $125,000, they will help them “gazelle” their business to $500,000 and develop a business plan to get them there. Our training center will have 18 conference rooms where you can start your business and be there for nine to 12 months,” says Stokes.
The most exciting part of the center will be the angel investment network and micro-lending program.
“We want to train people how to put together their business plans and develop a micro-lending angel investment network. There is none in Thurston County. We have a lot of people starting their businesses in their garages, a lot of software and app development, craft brewing and distilling. We want to help people grow those businesses. We’ll rival the one in Pierce/King County.” Stokes admitted there are a lot of cannabis businesses starting in their garages too, but didn’t want to go there.
“I rent a place on the west side of Olympia, but I can’t decide if I want to live in Woodland or downtown Olympia! I’m an urban kind of guy - I want to be in the heart of it. I want to be where it is,” laughed Stokes.
No doubt, Stokes is, well, stoked about the success and impact the college is having in Thurston County.
For more information about South Puget Sound Community College, go to or call (360) 754-7711 or go to 2011 Mottman Road SW, Olympia.
The community meeting with Dr. Timothy Stokes was coordinated by Thurston County Commissioner Sandra Romero, who hosts monthly chats on topical issues with various speakers. For more information, contact Commissioner Romero at or (360) 786-5440.

Above: Juan Carlos Ruiz Duran, 28, is currently a student at SPSCC and will transfer to The Evergreen State College next Fall. He is getting his Associate of Arts in education and teaching.
“This is the third college I’ve tried. SPSCC is different – it’s more inclusive. I have connections and relationships that have made my journey here easier.”
Born in Mexico, Ruiz Duran came to the United States in 1995 and to Washington State the following year. He went to Olympia High School and graduated from Avanti in 2008.
Ruiz Duran started SPSCC’s first Latino identity student group, Latino Student Union, and collaborates with St. Martin University’s Latino Student Alliance and Evergreen’s MeChA.