All Hands On Deck To Fix Washington State’s College Completion Problem

All Hands On Deck To Fix Washington State's College Completion Problem
To boost student completion rates, Washington state public colleges and universities - and community and technical colleges - are stepping up student advisory programs. The aim is to help enrollees handle academic and financial challenges. Seen here: students crossing the campus at Central Washington University in Ellensburg. Photo: Central Washington University.

Washington state has a college completion problem. At four-year, in-state public institutions, only 56 percent graduate within four years. For two-year schools, 71 percent don’t graduate within three years. On top of that, about 500,000 Washingtonians earned more than one year of college credit but left shy of a degree, and roughly 700,000 attended some college, but likewise left empty-handed.

Academic And Financial Challenges

Academic and financial challenges can stall success. Yet employers need more workers who have completed college. State schools and lawmakers hope to turn the tables by strengthening student advisory and intervention programs. Central Washington University (CWU), Eastern Washington University (EWU) and Evergreen State College each received $750,000 of the general fund for both fiscal year 2016 and 2017 for “student success and advising programs that lead to increased degree completion.”

Gaining traction are strategies which include:

  • counseling students away from courses unrelated to their degrees;
  • providing timely and even color-coded interventions via mobile devices;
  • quickly formulating revisions in degree-completion strategy after academic setbacks;
  • closely monitoring student financial challenges;
  • and delivering peer counseling.

Taking The Right Classes

Sarah Swager, Ph.D., Dean of Student Success at CWU, said, “There’s a big push not just in the state, but also at CWU to help students to find the quickest path” to degree completion. “The more credits you take that are not directly going to the degree you are seeking, the more expensive it is, and the more time you are taking to do that.”

At CWU, the advising system is designed for mobile devices. “A faculty member can send a message to a student saying ‘I am concerned you did poorly on an exam, come and see me.’ Those kinds of messages tend to be powerful, to help students know in real time what problems they are experiencing,” said Swager.

Mobile, Color-Coded Progress Reports

Other tech tools can help. Alicia Kinne-Clawson, Associate Director of Government Relations at EWU, said at a December 1 State House Higher Education Committee meeting that the university will be purchasing new “red light, yellow light, green light” advising software.

“All of the red light students go to the top. These are students that maybe…failed a critical test…so we can now flag that student. Their advisor sends them a text message that says ‘we need to talk if the likelihood of passing this class is dropping,’ and then (they) plan for next quarter accordingly,” said Kinne-Clawson.

A Close Eye On Finances

The EWU program also tracks student financial needs, including progress on Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) grant submissions. If a student ends up a few hundred dollars short, the advisor is “able to respond and connect that student with appropriate financial aid resources,” said Kinne-Clawson.

Three years ago, Lower Columbia College (LCC) started a Student Success Fund. Since then, it has provided $50,000 to roughly 60 students annually, according to Kendra Sprague, Vice President of the college’s foundation.

“We’ve seen these students who otherwise would have dropped out of school, stay in school and complete,” said Sprague.

Students can fill out a form, indicate what they are struggling with financially, and the counselors prioritize where money is best spent. The average student award runs $500, and is used for anything from paying for textbooks to helping a student manage apartment utility costs, Sprague said.

Payback From Student Advisory Programs

State Senator-elect Hans Zeiger (R-25) emphasized the payback from intervention. “There may not be as many people advocating for” student advisory programs, “but it’s a very important thing to invest in and will have long term rewards.” Zeiger is former ranking minority member of the House Higher Education Committee, and will chair the Senate’s Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee.

Among the elements critical for persistence and success in college are connecting students early with tutoring and learning support systems, and solid academic advising, especially in the first year. That’s according to Jayne Drake, former President of the National Academic Advising Association.

Just Opening The Doors Is Not Enough

“We have long since left in the dust the notion that simply opening our doors to students is enough” and that “once here, they can negotiate their own way through our often Byzantine, labyrinthine curriculum (and) processes…” wrote Drake.

To boost student completion, the Evergreen State College hired new teachers to lower class sizes in first- and second-year courses, and boosted staffing for new student programs, internships and employer relations, and computer science. The school also added a multicultural advisor and a conduct administrator.

Peer Mentoring

A peer-to-peer program is also key. Colleen Rust is Director of Government Relations for Evergreen. She said the student body today includes many more first-generation college-goers who “can’t just call mom and dad,” and seek counsel on getting into the right classes. As a result, she said, “top-to-bottom support is so important.”

Rust said the college’s peer mentoring program pairs 36 students with two upperclassmen. First-year student retention is now 68 percent, up from 65 percent three years ago, prior to the effort’s start, she added.

Peer support programs are also important to State Rep. Gerry Pollet (D-46), Vice Chair of the House Higher Education Committee. Pollet told Lens he is developing 2017 legislation aiming to help boost higher education completion rates in state public institutions, and that the state’s system needs to prepare for “a tremendous increase in the next few years” of first-generation students going to college.

Pollet said, “Those students need additional supports because they don’t have anyone to turn to for advice about what is a student loan; and what is an appropriate level of student debt; what courses they ought to be taking; or what might be productive degrees for them.”

Pollet added, “It requires special resources to go to those students, and some of that is …orientation courses for incoming students, that are coupled with a care or mentoring program, so they have a place to turn, and support as they try to navigate their way through the difficulties of attending college.”


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