Washington State Gets Funds For New Community College Completion Initative

October 14th, 2009

SEATTLE –The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) is launching the Washington State Student Completion Initiative aimed at dramatically increasing community college completion rates. The initiative, one of the most comprehensive completion efforts in the country, will launch new programs and expand successful pilot programs aimed at addressing key barriers to student success.

The initiative is supported by the state Legislature, a $5.3 million investment by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and $800,000 from the Ford Foundation.

“As Washington competes in the global economy, it is critical that we have the most highly skilled workforce available,” Gov. Chris Gregoire said. “That starts with our community and technical colleges. That’s why I have supported their innovative student completion initiatives in past state budgets and am so pleased to hear about this partnership with the Gates and Ford foundations, which will catapult their efforts even further.”

In today’s global economy, a college degree or postsecondary certificate is required to obtain a family-wage job. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for community college graduates will grow at a rate nearly twice as fast as the national average between 2006 and 2016. Nationally, only about 28 percent of first-time, full-time students at two-year institutions earn an associate degree within three years of enrolling. Washington is one of only a handful of states that is working aggressively to increase these percentages.

“Low-income young adults rely on community and technical colleges to get the skills they need in today’s economy, but many are struggling to succeed despite their best efforts,” said Jan Yoshiwara, SBCTC’s deputy executive director for education. “This partnership is funding some of the most innovative approaches to teaching and learning that will help us move more students further and faster to educational and economic success.”

The Washington State Student Completion Initiative will focus state and local attention on several key “achievement points” that research shows students must pass on the road to graduation, among them successfully completing pre-college or other remedial courses and completing a college-level math course.

“Getting more students into college means little if we’re not also making the effort to help them graduate,” said Hilary Pennington, director of Education, Postsecondary Success and Special Initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Washington state has an inspiring track record of developing innovative and effective ways to do just that.”

Several Washington state programs already serve as national models for boosting student completion. These programs will be expanded over the four years of the Washington State Student Completion Initiative:

  • The state’s I-BEST program combines basic academic courses and career skills classes to ensure that the least-prepared students not only complete college, but are competitive in the workforce upon graduation. Program evaluations suggest that I-BEST students are almost four times more likely to earn a credential or degree than similar students who were not enrolled in I-BEST. Under this initiative, Washington state will expand I-BEST to new pre-college and college-level degree programs. (I-BEST stands for Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training.)
  • Washington’s Student Achievement Initiative provides financial incentives for institutions based on increases in student milestones that have demonstrated key linkages to college completion. It represents a significant shift from traditional funding, which typically is based solely on a college’s enrollment. During the pilot phase of the initiative, colleges served the same number of students but increased student achievement by nearly 5 percent. The greatest gains were a 10 percent boost in basic skills and nearly a 7 percent jump in college readiness. This initiative will expand the financial incentives to those colleges that see higher numbers of students who reach key graduation milestones.

The state will launch two new programs under the Washington State Student Completion Initiative:

  • Strengthen and expand access to the colleges’ gatekeeper courses. There are 80 high-enrollment, gatekeeper and pre-college courses that most students must take to successfully earn a degree. Too often, students don’t complete these courses, can’t find an open section, or can’t afford the textbook. SBCTC and the 34 colleges will research, redesign, teach, and assess the 80 courses to improve completion rates through best practices in instructional design and active learning. This online initiative will reduce total student costs (an estimated $6.5 million a year) with open textbooks, course packs, existing library resources, and other open educational resources. All 80 courses will be digital, so faculty can select and continually improve courses, colleges can offer additional online or blended sections, and the courses can be shared throughout the college system and with the rest of the world. The state aims to achieve 95 percent completion rates in all redesigned high-enrollment gatekeeper courses.
  • Take steps to improve students’ success in pre-college and college math. Math continues to be the major hurdle for students to complete certificates and degrees. More than 56,000 community college students in Washington are required to take remedial-level math (a 9 percent increase in the last year alone). Under this initiative, a coalition of seven colleges will focus on improving student math achievement by making substantive changes in curriculum, instructional practices and teacher support, and assessment. The program aims to increase successful completion of remedial math courses by 15 percent.

“Too many young people enroll in community colleges expecting educational advancement and broader opportunity—only to find a revolving door,” said Alison Bernstein, vice president of education, creativity and free expression at the Ford Foundation. “We are pleased to support initiatives such as Student Achievement that offer large numbers of students the chance to reach their ultimate goals of obtaining AA and BA degrees. We want students to complete their higher education, not just sample it.”

The grants announced today advance efforts by the Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation to help increase the number of people in the United States who successfully earn a degree or certificate beyond high school.