With career-oriented courses and connections to local industries, Bellingham Technical College has established a considerable foothold among Bellingham’s institutions of higher learning that include Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College.

This year, BTC has even more to celebrate: its 60th anniversary, and a reputation for helping students land employment after graduation — no small task in an economy where debt-ridden college graduates can languish for years before finding a job in their field of study, if they find a job at all. In an interview, BTC president Kimberly Perry said 70 percent of BTC students are immediately employed after graduation.

That might explain why BTC saw an enrollment surge in the 2016–2017 school year, and was, said Perry, one of only two colleges in the state to meet their enrollment goals for that year.

Tuition at BTC is cheaper than both Western Washington University and Whatcom Community College, making it an ideal place for the undecided student to explore their options, Perry said.

“With this route, students can start making money, start living on their own, and then come back to college if that’s what they want to do,” Perry said.

Since BTC opened its doors in 1957, its campus and its curriculum has been ever-changing. In the past decade, it has added several new buildings to campus; received more than $800,000 in grants to boost aerospace, machining and engineering training; and won grants for programs that allow for more intensive student support and services.

Newly added this year are two bachelor degree programs: operations management and energy technology. The baccalaureate classes offer online and Saturday classes, which help those who already hold full- or part-time jobs on a flexible schedule.

In addition to cheaper tuition, BTC has become a vital part of the local community, setting itself apart by offering public services from students at a discounted rate. BTC offers dental work, automotive, and culinary work provided by students learning the trades. It’s a win-win.

The dental care facilities are newly remodeled, and offer services ranging from cleaning to root canals, at an average cost of 30 percent lower than private clinics. BTC’s trademark Culinary Arts program supports a wildly popular, fully operational restaurant: Café Culinaire, open for more than 20 years. During spring quarter, members of the public can receive a three-course meal with 5-star quality ingredients for under $20. Reservations for the restaurant are a hot ticket, having sold out in fewer than three hours in the past.

In the future, Perry wants BTC to focus on job placement programs, helping students finish degree programs in a timely fashion, and adding more entry points to start a program in any quarter, not just fall.

“I was lucky, I finished college in four years,” Perry said. “But the average two-year degree is taking four years, and then six years if they transfer.”

For high school students, BTC offers Running Start. Nineteen students graduated with their high school diploma and associate’s degree last year. There is also Impact, a program which targets students who did not finish high school, providing them options to earn their high school diploma or GED while attending BTC.

Perry said returning adults who come to technical college to move up in their current job has always been part of technical colleges, and BTC has a dedicated department for those students.

With the expanding and affordable programs, the school is trying to work out effective ways to support demand. The nursing program recently switched from a lottery system, which was shutting potential students out, to a first-come-first-serve system. Students lined up outside the registrar’s office for more than two days to get their applications in first.

Technical colleges, for students who know what they want to do and what skills they need to improve, are a streamlined option to a new career or advancing an existing one. Technical colleges help make the world beyond college a less blurry place.

Perry said BTC aims to help students decide early, receive adequate financial aid, and forge a career path for themselves. “Bellingham Technical College has been doing that for 60 years. We have been helping students do what they want with their lives,” Perry said.

1955: Bellingham School District buys five acres on Lindbergh Ave. for a vocational school after running evening classes out of the old Sehome elementary school.

Sept. 1957: Bellingham Technical School opens its doors.

May 1991: The governor approves the Community and Technical College Act, moving the five vocational-technical schools from the local school districts to the college system.

Sept. 1991: Bellingham Vocational-Technical Institute becomes Bellingham Technical College.

May 1996: Bellingham Technical College begins offering applied associate degrees for graduates in 18 programs.

2003–2013: BTC adds several new buildings on campus to enhance program offerings: Haskell Center, Morse Center, Desmond McArdle Center, Campus Center and a complete rebuild of the Perry Center for Aquaculture Sciences at Maritime Heritage Park.

2016: BTC offers its first bachelor of applied science degree in Operations Management, with another in Engineering Technology in the works.

Did you know?

At the end of BTC’s first year, the college had 20 instructors for 16 programs and 336 students.

In 2017, BTC offers 38 associate degrees, 51 certificates and two bachelor of applied science degrees, serving about 5,500 students.

BTC’s Foundation provided 270 scholarships worth $255,000 to 223 BTC students for 2016–17.

"This year, BTC has even more to celebrate: its 60th anniversary, and a reputation for helping students land employment after graduation."