Washington has a problem. Nearly 56 percent of students attending four-year public colleges in the state did not graduate within four years, and 71 percent did not graduate from two-year public post-secondary schools within three years, according to a report from the Chronicle of Higher Education.
The need for Washington to up its game is evident in other ways. In a recent draft statute, lawmakers noted that state ranks 47th of 50 in bachelor’s degrees awarded to population aged 20 to 34. As Opportunity Washington has reported, by 2020 some 70 percent of Washington jobs will require postsecondary education or training.
How to help students keep on track once they begin post-secondary classes is a central concern for key stakeholders, and students themselves.
‘Some College, No Degree’
According to a 2015 report by the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC), “Some College, No Degree,” an estimated 700,000 Washingtonians attended college between 2009 and 2013 but have no degree, and are currently not enrolled in college. Nearly 500,000 of this population have over one year’s worth of college credits.
State legislators and WSAC say there are ways for Washington to help more students at public two- and four-year colleges stay in school, finish on time, and be positioned for career success. These include establishing the “Free to Finish” college program, implementing performance-based funding for higher education, and intensifying secondary school college prep programs.
“I think we need to find a way for our public institutions to be much more nimble and responsive to what is going on in the market because [it] is changing very rapidly,” said State Rep. Hans Zeiger (R-25). He is ranking minority member of the House Higher Education Committee.
‘Free To Finish’ Incentive
Last session, a bipartisan group of state legislators introduced the “Free to Finish” bill which would cover tuition and fees for students who left college with 15 credits or less remaining in their program.
“It would provide a financial incentive for people to get in and complete whatever credit they needed to finish up their degree. I think there is a lot to be said from that kind of approach,” said Zeiger.
Performance Incentives For Public Colleges
Zeiger also introduced a bill last session which would link funding levels of state public four-year institutions to goals that could include freshman re-enrollment rate, percent of enrollees who graduate within six years, and the increased awarding of degrees in high-demand fields. The monies would come from a special incentive-funding pool, above and beyond baseline higher ed appropriations.
“I think everybody will benefit when we are more market-driven and performance funding allows us to do that,” said Zeiger.
Both bills stalled in 2016. Zeiger anticipates that the measures on higher ed performance funding and “Free to Finish” will be on the table in the 2017 biennial budget session.
‘Intensive Advising’ And Mentoring Also On Menu
State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46) told Lens he will be reintroducing legislation in 2017 to improve retention and completion rates at higher education institutions, using evidence-based strategies built on what is working in other states. He is Vice Chair of the House Higher Education Committee.
“The core of it is what some people refer to as intensive advising, coupled with mentoring and a student success course within their first semester or year, where students are given very intensive skills for studying, college prep, as well as financial skills…that are necessary to keep them in college,” Pollet told Lens.
Getting Serious In High School
Other stakeholders are also trying to drive change. WSAC set two educational goals for 2023: All adults aged 25 to 44 will have high school diplomas or equivalent and 70 percent will have a postsecondary credential. The legislature adopted the goals in 2014.
Rachelle Sharpe, acting executive director of WSAC, told Lens that Washington has a strong higher education system, but improvements could begin with high school graduation rates, especially with students who are the first in their family to go to college.
Sharpe added that even though high school graduation rates are improving, they are still too low. According to U.S. Department of Education data, Washington’s high school graduation rate in 2012-13 was 76.4 percent, versus a national average of 81.4 percent.
One way to address this is through “strong student support programs…to give them the support and skill necessary to navigate the complexities of attending college,” Sharpe said. More advanced placement classes and “running start” programs would help, she added.
“Participating in that rigorous college-level coursework really challenges students and builds their confidence to help them prepare for postsecondary education,” said Sharpe.
Salary Data For Past Attendees Sheds Some Light
Consumer data can help guide choices. Washington college-going students and their parents can see which public two- and four-year public colleges in the state yield the best outcomes, according to several measures. One is post-college earnings.
According to the U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard, the best choices among Washington state public four-year institutions for salary ten years after beginning classes are the University of Washington Seattle, Bothell and Tacoma campuses, at $53,700.
The next three schools with highest estimated salaries include Washington State University, $47,500; Central Washington University, $44,500; and Western Washington University, $43,600.
The salary figures are lower than for graduates only, because they also include those who did not complete their degrees, and those who transfer out.
Making The Degree Count
Part of the formula for success is choosing a major with job prospects. A 2014 Federal Reserve Bank of New York report analyzed national job placements for college graduates aged 22 to 27 based on their area of study.
Communications and Liberal Arts majors found themselves in jobs that required a bachelor’s degree only 40 percent of the time between 2009 and 2011. Engineering, Health and Education graduates used their degree 75 percent of the time for post-graduate jobs.