In her first visit to the district since being sworn in to Congress, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Washougal, visited Centralia College Friday morning to meet student government leaders and college faculty, learn about ongoing programs and discuss federal priorities for the school.
While the main focus of the tour was getting the congresswoman familiar with Centralia College and its various programs, Bob Mohrbacher, president of the college, told Gluesenkamp Perez the school’s top priority in Congress would be to support any legislation that could “streamline” the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application process.
Despite federal funding making college education more accessible for students with lower incomes, Mohrbacher said, the forms to receive the money are so complicated that new applicants are often discouraged.
“(They think), ‘Maybe I’m not college ready if I can’t fill out the form,’” he told the 3rd district representative.
And while staff are already supporting efforts to simplify the process, Mohrbacher said, “It won’t be simple enough.”
Gluesenkamp Perez, 35, reflected on her days in community college and time spent on the Mount Hood Community College Automobile Advisory Committee, agreeing the FAFSA process was too complicated. Especially, she said, for 17 year olds.
Mohrbacher explained the college does not have a loan program as it aspires to make sure all graduates leave with no debt. Studies they’ve done, he said, have shown a loan program would increase enrollment initially but would have little impact on student outcomes, which Centralia College tracks through the years following graduation.
“(That) is a very principled stance to take,” Gluesenkamp Perez said of the college’s choice to prevent students from taking on debt.
One of the ways the school increases accessibility of college education is through the Running Start program, which allows high school students to graduate with their diploma and an associate’s degree, at no cost to them.
“Centralia College has the highest increase in Running Start students of any other college (in the state) this year,” said Court Stanley, chair of the Board of Trustees, later adding, “We really hit that hard and tried to recruit as many students as we could.”
After sitting down with the college’s student government and discussing congressional priorities, faculty took Gluesenkamp Perez on a campus tour, showcasing a chemistry lab with Professor Karen Goodwin, a diesel technology lab with professor Brian Lipp and the college’s flexible training center, which includes a CDL driving simulator, with Interim Dean of Health Care and Industrial Trades Elizabeth Lazo.
As the representative co-owns an auto repair shop in Portland with her husband, Dean, she was particularly interested in understanding Centralia College’s trade education opportunities. One of her former employees at the shop attended the college’s auto mechanic program, she said.
“I remember he was fresh out of college,” Gluesenkamp Perez said. “So, we were a little bit skeptical, but he had letters of recommendation from his professors here, and they had done a really good job helping him put together a strong resume.”
Calling finding skilled workers in the current climate a “bloodsport,” the congresswoman said she was inspired to see so many “community servants” supporting students, especially in the trades.
Board of Trustees member Mark Scheibmeir mentioned the 3rd district, which covers Lewis, Clark, Cowlitz, Pacific, Wahkiakum, Skamania counties and part of Thurston, has only community colleges and no universities — though, he added, there is a WSU satellite campus in Vancouver. He and Mohrbacher described their efforts to work collaboratively with other colleges in the district to support the area’s economy and student outcomes.
“We think it’s the most important sector of education,” Mohrbacher said.
Scheibmeir responded: “Hear, hear!”
Gluesenkamp Perez, after the tour, told The Chronicle she was inspired by the leaders she’d been introduced to, adding her understanding of Centralia College instilled in her a new “sense of urgency, in protecting the good things that are happening here.”
According to a news release from Lewis County, she also met with the county commissioners and county manager in a meeting later on Friday.