Magazine article The American Prospect

Ideas from the Other Washington: Policy Reforms to Increase Student Success

Magazine article The American Prospect

Ideas from the Other Washington: Policy Reforms to Increase Student Success

Article excerpt

Community colleges, far more than four-year colleges, serve groups that will dominate our undergraduate student populations and our work force for decades to come: students on their own financially, older students, people of color, parents, first-generation college students, and immigrants. Although widely viewed as gateways to the American dream, community colleges face relatively low completion rates. This quandary challenges our national commitment to economic mobility.

Washington state, more than any other, has sought to address this challenge systematically. Researchers mined state data on work-force needs, demographic changes, and student outcomes in community and technical colleges. They found that students needed to reach a "tipping point" in their educational journeys for postsecondary education to translate into significant economic benefits. This tipping point is about a year's worth of postsecondary education, paired with an occupational credential.

But too few students, especially if they needed extra help with academic or English-language skills, were reaching that tipping point, and the state's employers were facing a projected shortage of workers with those same midlevel skills. Washington recognized the importance for the state's economic future of moving more of its least educated citizens to the tipping point. This premise was behind the drive for policy reforms aimed at increasing community college student success.

Washington state's reforms--which include the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training initiative, or I-BEST, Opportunity Grants, and the Student Achievement Initiative--began to address three principal reasons why low-income, two-year college students often fail to complete credentials: under-preparation, specifically inadequate reading, writing, math, or English-language skills; cost, especially the cost of supporting themselves and their families while in school; and, fear, a lack of confidence compounded by the inability of cash-strapped community colleges to offer in-depth, ongoing college and career counseling to most students.

I-BEST, which the state adult education and work-force offices began as a joint pilot in 2004, tackles the college-preparation issue by integrating academic and occupational courses so that students can improve basic or English-language skills while earning for-credit occupational credentials in pathways proven to place graduates in family-supporting jobs. Colleges have incentives to scale up I-BEST because the state offers higher funding for enrollments that follow this model. A recent independent study of I-BEST found promising early results. For example, 55 percent of I-BEST students earned an occupational certificate, compared to only 15 percent of a statistically matched comparison group. More than three-fourths of I-BEST students (78 percent) persisted into a second year of postsecondary education, compared to 61 percent of the matched group. The state currently is extending the I-BEST model beyond adult education and English-language students to other students assessed as needing college remediation.

Washington's Opportunity Grants complement I-BEST and address both the cost and confidence challenges to student persistence by coupling comprehensive grant aid to low-income students in high-demand, high-wage occupations with funding to colleges for intensive student services. Opportunity Grants, providing students with about $3,000 a year, are intended to fill in financial-aid gaps, helping especially those students in college programs left out of current federal and state assistance. …

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