Providing Pathways Through College: Expert Guidance Helps Students Complete a Degree
September 20, 2019

The original version of this story was published in the Seattle Times.

By Ingrid Stegemoeller, Partnership for Learning

Jessica Crowe is a single mom who serves as a medic in the Army Reserve, interns at a physical therapy office, raises two young kids, one of whom has autism, helps with her sister’s baby, coaches basketball, and is two courses away from completing her associate degree with a 3.97 at Pierce College Fort Steilacoom in Lakewood. 

It sounds like a lot, because it is.

“I’ve juggled a lot for the past year and a half, but you wouldn’t be able to tell if you looked at my transcripts,” she says. Crowe, 29, held off on returning to school for 10 years because she wasn’t sure she could do it all. When she first started college, she didn’t know what she wanted to do.

“I had taken a lot of different classes that didn’t amount to anything,” Crowe said.

Working as a medic, she discovered a passion for helping people. When she moved to the Northwest, she started researching physical therapy schools. She met with a Pacific Lutheran University adviser who sent her back to community college to get two years of undergrad done —“for way less money.” The credits will count toward her degree at a four-year university.

Crowe enrolled at Pierce College, where she was connected with the Guided Pathways program, renamed Career Pathways at Pierce based on student feedback. The approach, used in Washington’s community and technical colleges, is a step-by-step roadmap through a two-year degree. It simplifies choices, grouping courses together to form clear paths through college and into careers, whether students start those careers right after graduation or transfer to a university for continued study.

Data and partnership key to advocacy

Guided Pathways came to the attention of the Washington Roundtable and its education foundation, Partnership for Learning (PFL), as a strategy to increase postsecondary credential attainment in Washington state. Credential completion is one of four key metrics that the Roundtable and PFL are targeting to reach the goal that, by the high school class of 2030, 70 percent of Washington students achieve a post-high school credential by the age of 26. This goal is an acknowledgement that of the 740,000 jobs coming to Washington, most will be filled by workers with a postsecondary credential. We want our Washington kids to be ready.

In reviewing the completion rates of students at two-year institutions in Washington, it became clear there was room for improvement. As an initial step, the Roundtable and PFL partnered with the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) to shine a light on the substantial progress that community and technical colleges needed to make to enable more two-year students to complete a credential (such as a degree, apprenticeship, or certificate). Perhaps more importantly, PFL then worked closely with SBCTC to advance a solution: the Guided Pathways program.

Ensuring that all of our state’s two-colleges received support necessary to implement Guided Pathways was a key plank in the 2019 legislative agenda of the College Promise Coalition, of which the Roundtable and PFL are members, and together the group successfully advocated for about $32 million in the 2019-21 budget.

This data- and partnership-driven effort will drive substantially better guidance and counseling for students enrolled in state community and technical colleges, ultimately leading to program and degree completion for these students.

Finding a career path

Through Guided Pathways, advisers help students choose a path, stay on the path and get a degree or certificate. “Alleviating the stress of figuring what classes to take might seem small but feeling like you’re not doing it by yourself makes it easier,” Crowe says.”

Vice President of Learning & Student Success at Pierce College in Puyallup Matthew Campbell says, “Students who have an explicit college plan are more likely to achieve their academic goals…and more likely to graduate on time and with the skills employers need and/or the preparation for transfer to a partner institution.”

Saving students time and money

They’re also more likely to save time and money, other key factors of Guided Pathways that attracted the Roundtable and PFL. Just 37.5 percent of community college students graduate from a two- or four-year institution within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Many incur debt earning credits that don’t count toward their degree and don’t transfer. Pierce Data Solutions Developer Carly Haddon says in 2016, about 16 percent of Pierce students were taking at least five credits more than they needed for their degree, amounting to 13,000 excess credits, or $3 million dollars per year. A clear path clarifies the courses needed to get students out into the workforce or to a transfer school faster, which is especially important for students with limited financial resources.

Eliminating barriers – and the achievement gap

Campbell says Pathways is an effective strategy for “increasing college completion rates and closing achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color, many of whom are first-generation students who do not have the privilege of having someone in their family who attended college before them who can make sense of how to progress through higher education.” 

Pierce College data confirms its success so far, including:

  • In the last four years, a 32 percent decrease in the gap in successful course completion of English 101 between white and black students
  • Eight percent increase in overall success
  • 14 percent increase in year-to-year retention
  • 60 percent increase in degrees and certificates since 2010

The end game

Crowe is on track to graduate this spring with a degree in applied science, which she plans to apply toward a four-year degree and a doctorate. Her goal is to become a physical therapist. She’s continued her internship after completing the 120 hours for her degree, because she enjoys it. Crowe says, “School the second time around has been a way better use of my time. It feels like my hard work is paying off.”

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Ingrid Stegemoeller

Ingrid is Partnership for Learning's Communications Manager

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