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 post-secondary 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: underpreparation, 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. In addition to this new grant aid for students, colleges receive $1,500 to support the success of each Opportunity Grant student they enroll. This support includes services such as in-depth college and career advising and emergency child care or transportation aid.
Lake Washington Technical College near Seattle illustrates the difference this funding makes. Given skyrocketing enrollments and budget shortfalls, many students there see an academic adviser just once, when they first enroll. Opportunity Grants, however, allow Lake Washington to give proactive advising and support for a full year to the poorest students on campus so they can achieve their educational goals. While no independent evaluation is yet available, state data shows that Opportunity Grant recipients have higher retention or completion rates (81 percent) compared with Pell grant recipients (73 percent) and other low-income students (54 percent) enrolled in the same high-demand occupational programs.
I-BEST and Opportunity Grants are innovative program strategies for increasing student success. But given that funding for colleges is typically driven by enrollments, and not by student outcomes, how can states and the federal government encourage wider adoption of such strategies? Washington state's answer is the Student Achievement Initiative, which rewards colleges financially according to how many students they help achieve learning milestones associated with higher future earnings (the tipping point). These milestones include increased basic skills, completion of a remediation course, and earning 15, and then 30, college-level credits. Colleges receive the most funding for improving learning outcomes for the lowest-skilled students. And unlike most postsecondary data systems, the measurement system for this initiative tracks the progress of all college students, from recent high school graduates to working adults to English-language learners. Colleges can look at their own student outcome data as well as compare their outcomes to their peers. And the performance funding the colleges earn is on top of their existing state subsidy and is added to that base in future years, giving them resources they can plan on for sustaining innovation.
Elsewhere, statewide initiatives in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, like I-BEST, are bridging the basic-skills gap in key career pathways for low-income students. Kentucky's Ready to Work initiative uses federal welfare block grant funds to staff on-campus counselors, who provide services similar to those funded under Opportunity Grants, and also provides work-study jobs for low-income parents in community colleges.
As the Obama administration and Congress move on new community college and student success initiatives, they should follow the other Washington's lead and pursue solutions to these challenges: how to bridge the remediation and college-credit divide; how to pair our investment in access with an equal one in success; how to make the outcomes of low-income and low-skilled students matter to a college's bottom line. Washington state may not have all the answers, but surely these are the right questions.
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