De Anza College Technical Writing Program Closes Down

Budget Cuts and Small Enrollment Cited

Despite its twenty-year history and sterling track record of graduates rapidly achieving employment, the Technical Writing (TWRT) program at De Anza College in Cupertino, CA has been canceled due to budget cuts.  Following completion by currently enrolled students, this one-of-a-kind program will close its doors.

De Anza, a large community college of approximately 25,000 students, is nestled in the heart of the Silicon Valley – home to many of the world’s largest and industry-leading technology companies, such as Google and Apple – companies that consistently employ the highest number of technical writers in the US. The program’s shutdown was initially announced in January, 2012, and faculty, student and alumni reaction has been growing.

According to TWRT Department Chair and only full-time faculty member, Marrietta Reber, and a long list of testimonials, many of these companies hire almost exclusively from the TWRT student pool.   “We have students who get jobs while they’re in the first class, and many before they’ve even earned their certificate,” said Reber.  In fact, some companies send their current employees to take classes at De Anza for training and continuing education.

De Anza Offered Associates Degree and Certificate Program in Technical Writing

De Anza offered a certificate program and an AA degree program in Technical Writing.  The certificate consisted of four intensive classes taught by industry professionals in which students produced a portfolio of industry-level samples that they designed themselves.  According to Reber, the portfolio is essential because, “when they interview for a position, they can show and not just tell.”

Reber notes that the majority of TWRT students already have BA or MA degrees, so they don’t need another degree.  They need training so they can display skills and knowledge to potential employers.  With affordable evening courses ( $140 per course), the program is geared more toward working professionals, parents, or individuals looking to rapidly break into a new field.  Those portfolios get people jobs, and quickly.  Employers in this field care more about current work samples than degrees from expensive institutions.

Last year, the average student loan debt per borrower was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports.[1]  The technical communications field, where a specific BA or MA degree is often not required, is thriving, and job seekers looking  to land high paying job often turn to the more economical AA and certificate programs such as the De Anza TWRT program to acquire practical training

Eliminating the TWRT program will save the school less than $200,000 from the previous year’s budget, accounting for only two percent of the necessary cuts.   In addition to the technical writing program, De Anza cut their Computer Applications and Office Systems (CAOS) program which benefited students from all majors.  The total college shortfall for 2012-2013 is $5.9 million. The shortfall for the entire district, which includes De Anza College, Foothill College, and Central Services, is $12.7 million.

During the ten years that Reber served as Department Chair, she earned and maintained the Federal Perkins Funding Grant each year for the department, which provided $15,000 in non-salary/non-operational funds each year to support other needs such “smart classroom” equipment including computers and projectors.  Since the program’s elimination, the grant funds were reallocated to other vocational education programs.

Typically, a community college’s primary objective is to offer courses that can transfer to a four-year university.  “Our program is an apple where the rest of the college is an orange.  A technical writing program isn’t really an undergraduate, college-level transfer program. It’s more of a vocational education program tailored to skilled professionals in the high-tech sector.  When you have to determine what your priorities are, freshman English and math have to take priority,” said Reber.

Reber went on to say, “Essential aspects of our college are being challenged and evaluated for cuts.   The situation really is truly terrible.  The administration is trying to keep the college operating by cutting out or at least evaluating for elimination, any programs that aren’t critical for fundamental operations of the college.”

De Anza has been in a financial crisis for years, a direct result significant funding cuts by the State of California over the past several years.  De Anza is a state-funded, non-profit organization, and the financial turmoil stems from state budget cuts to their budget, rather than from any question internal practices.

Reber has had to defend the TWRT program to the administration each year, and most recently presented her case to the administration and an “Elimination Committee.”  The committee, composed of five to seven individuals from various disciplines, was formed for the purpose of deciding which programs to cut.

Budget cuts alone were not the only deciding factor in cutting the TWRT program.  Enrollment was also a factor that probably pushed TWRT to the top of the list.  “We are a niche, specialty discipline.  In terms of overall enrollment, the numbers are negligible for the college,” said Reber. In addition, she says that marketing efforts were hampered by the fact that she is the only Department Chair in the Language Arts division who did not receive release time (a reduced teaching load to allow the department chair to perform administrative duties).

Fortunately, “If a student has already begun their course of study and not yet finished it, then [De Anza] is committed to ensuring that they have the opportunity to finish their course of study,” said Reber.  After the last student completes their program, the entire program, curriculum, coursework, and resources will no longer be available, with  the last class slated for the Fall quarter of 2013.  Students must complete their course of study by this specified deadline. Reber says there are no discussions or efforts underway to attempt to reinstate the program, and requests for comment by the administration have gone unanswered

All of the department’s faculty teach on a part-time basis because they are working in the industry. When the currently enrolled students complete the program, “those faculty members will just not teach here anymore (unless they apply to teach a different subject). There is no official effort to reassign them,” said Reber.

Technical Writing Program Alternatives?

So where can students turn?  Reber said that “There really isn’t an equivalent program in the area.  A De Anza committee performed an equivalency study, commissioned by the VP of Instruction, and they were unable to find an equivalent program to ours.”  According to the Society for Technical Communication’s (STC) Academic Database, only one AA program and six certificate programs are currently available in the U.S.

Reber said that she receives countless emails from students everyday saying “what do I do?” “where do I go?”  “They have to scramble on their own to find some kind of career relevant training and I just don’t know where they can get it now.  They may have to choose a different career altogether” said Reber. However,  the La Voz Weekly, an independent college news site serving De Anza students, reported in April “Alternative programs for students interested in Technical Writing are available at Mission College, San Jose State University and UC Berkeley Extension.”

In addition, Pam Estes Brewer, Ph.D., Manager of the STC Academic Special Interest Group, notes that “The state of programs in technical communication is very healthy, and the field of technical communication is recovering nicely from the recession.  We are seeing an upsurge of variety in academic programs particularly in areas of new media.  I believe there is a place for all types of programs in the field as they serve different audiences with different goals from the recent college graduate to the practitioner who wishes to move up the corporate ladder to a professional who wishes to make a career change.”

“[The TWRT program] has made a huge difference in fundamental nature of so many people’s lives. To have that go away is such a tragedy. Especially at a time when so many people in the U.S. are desperate for and worthy of real professional experience and positions. It’s heartbreaking that we’re taking away the lifeline from those needed and gifted individuals to be able to support their families and have that confidence,” said Reber.

Despite the closure of a successful, albeit low-enrollment program, prospects for technical communication jobs in the US remain bright. “Job growth for technical writers is expected to outpace the national average.  Due to predicted growth in the high tech and electronics industries the value of technical communication skills will no doubt rise. In fact, The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the demand for technical communicators will grow 4% faster than demand for media and communication workers.  Employment of technical writers is expected to grow 17 percent from 2010 to 2020, about as fast as the average for all occupations.”[2]

Technical Writing is still ranking in the top of many lists of the best jobs in the U.S.

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Lauren Hart

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