What we must do to increase success in higher ed

Although recent media attention questions the value of a degree in today’s environment, a quick glance at the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor statistics (www.bls.gov/emp/ep_chart_001.htm) clearly shows that education pays in both higher earnings and lower unemployment rates. In our own state, the recent Washington Roundtable report shows a growing number of jobs going unfilled due to a lack of qualified candidates.

To address this jobs skills “gap” the state must produce an increasing number of college graduates — many from a pool of students who are not college-ready. We need to focus on a refined set of priorities that will improve student access to and persistence in higher education to ensure the economic success of our industries, our citizens, and our entire state.

One organization that is doing good work in support of this cause is College Spark Washington, a private foundation that funds programs across Washington state that help low-income students become college-ready and earn their degrees. To receive funding, grantees must address at least one of the indicators below:

• Increasing the number of students that take and pass Algebra by the eighth grade. There is strong correlation between students that take algebra by eighth grade and college entrance. A recent BERC analysis of course-taking patterns in the seven Road Map Project districts in south King County found that students who took algebra by eighth grade were twice as likely to go to college as those that did not, and were twice as likely to go to a four-year college as a two-year college.

• Decreasing the number of middle school students that trigger two of three early-warning indicators: five or more unexcused absences per semester; course failure; and suspension or expulsion. Triggering two of three early-warning indicators in a school year by the ninth grade is highly predictive of leaving high school without a diploma. These early-warning indicators are both a symptom of students that are already disengaged from their educations and also cause further alienation from school. Reducing the number of low-income students who have early-warning indicators in middle school results in an increased probability of long-term college readiness.

• Decreasing the number of students that require developmental education in college. Over half (and in some Washington communities as many as 90 percent) of low-income students attending community colleges are required to take development education classes. According to analysis done by Complete College America, less than half of those students ever progress to credit-bearing English and math courses, and only about 10 percent ever complete a degree.

• Increasing the number of students that earn their first college-level credit in English or math. Colleges have put considerable time and resources into projects designed to increase student retention and move students more successfully through the levels of developmental education they required of students. Colleges and foundations were surprised to learn that even in cases where efforts to affect those indicators were successful, it largely did not translate into the increase in college-level English and math credits that most had assumed would naturally follow. Without earning credits in English or math, it is not possible for students to earn degrees.

By supporting programs that most effectively address these priorities, we can contribute to our community’s ability to support higher education success for low-income students.

Ultimately, it’s about increasing the number of students who complete their programs effectively and successfully transfer or get jobs. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2018, 2.3 million jobs in Washington will require postsecondary education. Filling those jobs will only happen by supporting student success in higher education now.

Dr. Jean Hernandez is President of Edmonds Community College and a member of the College Spark Washington Board of Trustees. College Spark funds programs across Washington state that help low-income students become college-ready and earn their degrees.

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