Pierce College has won a national award for making significant changes to the way it approaches education. Those changes have created a major boost in the college’s completion rates.

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Seven years ago, Pierce College joined a national college-reform network called Achieving the Dream and began diving deeply into data about its students to try to figure out why so few students graduated after three years.

At Pierce — a state community-college district with three campuses — fewer than 19 percent of students were finishing a two-year associate degree after three years. Of those who placed into a low-level math course when they first entered the college, only 7 percent eventually received a degree.

“That had to change,” said Michele Johnson, the district’s chancellor.

And change it did. Pierce’s three-year graduation rate is now 31 percent, and last month the college was one of two community colleges nationwide to win Achieving the Dream’s Leah Meyer Austin Award for making outstanding progress in changing to a student-focused culture. (The other winner was Miami Dade College.) Sixty-four percent of Pierce College’s students are the first in their families to go to college.

Education Lab is a Seattle Times project that spotlights promising approaches to persistent challenges in public education. It is produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network and is funded by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  

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Education Lab talked to Johnson about what the college has been doing and which ideas have proved successful.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: How did the college’s approach change after you joined Achieving the Dream?

A: We added research capacity and began disaggregating data. We started a number of different interventions — but we said this cannot be a viewed as an initiative, something we’re going to do on top of everything else. This has to become foundational.

Q: You made new-student orientation a requirement and started mandatory college-success courses. Why were these steps important?

A: When you look at elite institutions, they all have a first-year college experience class — and they have some of the best and brightest students. And if they think it’s important for students to get acclimated to the institution, why would we think that’s any less important for our own students?

We had a college-success class for a long time, and we knew students who completed it did better. And we’ve always had advising and orientation, but we asked how much of that needed to be mandatory.

When we started opening up the data, we discovered 20 percent of our students were not returning from fall to winter quarter. Forty-nine percent were not coming back from fall to fall. Students come to us way below college level — it’s unfair to measure us against (four-year colleges and universities) because most universities have selective enrollment. But the whole goal of a community college is giving everybody access to a better life. At the same time, if we open the door and we aren’t providing the resources, it’s really a false promise.

We doubled tutoring services, and supplemental instruction (a tutor tied to a specific class that has a high failure rate). We’ve had over 200 faculty who have participated in reading apprenticeships (teaching students how to glean content out of a particular text). It’s this total focus on mission and how we get these students to thrive and be successful. How do we change pedagogy, how do we teach differently?

The other thing we did that was pretty unheard of — and people gasp when we say it — we were able to create dashboards on all of our courses through software called Tableau. Every faculty member can see everybody’s completion rates, and they’re broken down by demographics. Now faculty can go, “I’m struggling with that group of students, you’re having success with them — what are you doing?”

Q: Is this what you mean by “democratization of data”?

A: Yes. We’re focused on improvement, we’re not focused on punishment. We want to … find strategies that will work with particular groups of students.

Q: You redesigned the pre-college math sequence to improve basic skills and get students to persist in those courses. What changes did you make?

A: Faculty took the whole pre-college sequence and looked at strategies that were going to get (students) through faster. The lowest level (of math) was arithmetic. They put that in a computer-assisted lab so students can progress at their own pace. There are two courses, and they can get through it in one quarter. We used something called ALEKS — it’s a computer-assisted learning lab — with full-time faculty in there at the same time.

We also know that those who want to go into science, technology, engineering or math (need) an intermediate algebra base. So our faculty … got rid of basic algebra, created a new course — intermediate algebra. If you’re a science major you’ll go into intermediate algebra, and if you’re a nonscience major you go into Quantway (a quantitative reasoning course).

We do these (math) placement tests — they’re pretty high-stakes tests, and faculty said they weren’t predictive of what students can do. So we’re changing those and also using transcripts, and using Smarter Balanced (the state’s test). That’s been a game-changer too.

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Q: You also got more students who were taking Pierce College’s adult high-school diploma classes to continue on with college classes. How did you do that?

A: Forty percent of students (in Pierce’s adult high-school diploma classes) say they want to transition to college after they get their high-school diploma, but we were having a transition rate of 10-12 percent. So our transitional-education division said if students could know they were college material in their last quarter, more would transition. Because they didn’t have a high-school diploma (yet), they weren’t eligible for financial aid. So our board of trustees made a decision we were going to waive tuition (for college-level courses) in the last quarter (of high-school diploma classes), so they could take the college-level course and not be charged. So we have gone from 10 to 12 percent to 33 percent transitioning into college. It’s pretty amazing, just that difference.

Q: Your three-year graduation rate has gone from 18.8 percent to 31 percent, a 64 percent increase. Still — some people will look at that and ask, why are only 31 percent graduating in three years?

A: If you look at all students in higher education, the graduation rate is 50 percent. Think again about our students. (People have an image of a college student) who’s 18, who leaves high school, who stays in a residence hall and that’s all they do. Well, that’s not who our students are.

(They come to college) having children themselves. And having to work full time. And life happens. They lose their job, they have a sick child — all of those things. They have to ask, do I decide to pay the rent, pay tuition, buy my textbooks? Unfortunately, the longer you take to finish the degree, the less likely you’re going to (finish). If we can get a student coming full time, they have a much higher likelihood of completion. And tuition has skyrocketed because state support has gone down.

Q: You were able to find the money, to make all of these changes, in your existing budget. How did you do it?

A: Painfully. We did not take this on as an initiative, we took it on as mission fulfillment, as core to what we do. We go through a very elaborate budget process. We asked for a certain amount of proposed cuts from everybody across the board … We’ve gone after some grant money, so that’s helped us a little bit, and we’ve tightened up all the things we do.

There’s never enough money. You can’t have that stop you.