A $7 million grant will allow Washington’s community colleges to clarify and simplify the path students must take to different career fields.

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What are you here for? What’s your major?

If you’re a student at a four-year college or university, those questions are asked early and often, by advisers, professors, perhaps even fellow students.

But they’re not asked nearly enough — sometimes, not at all — in the nation’s community colleges, researcher and author Davis Jenkins says.

That will soon change at some Washington colleges. A nonprofit has awarded the state a $7 million grant that will allow 10 community and technical colleges to begin designing pathways through the community-college landscape that lead to specific fields or majors.

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They’re needed because, for community-college students, choosing courses and settling on a career are often unclear at best and confusing at worst.

Many students put their own programs together, picking from a cafeteria of course options without a specific career goal in mind, said Jenkins, senior researcher at Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Community-college advisers, often stretched thin with hundreds of students to counsel a year, often don’t have time to talk to every student about what they want to do with their lives — or warn them that their grades aren’t high enough to get into their chosen field.

The result: “Students don’t see a path, and they bail,” Jenkins said.

Nationwide, about 39 percent of students who start at a two-year institution finished their degree in six years. Washington’s State Board for Community and Technical Colleges says students in this state do better — 48 percent of the state’s first-time, full-time community-college students complete a degree or certificate, or transferred to a four-year college, in three years.

Jenkins said Washington community colleges already have the building blocks in place to create a road map to specific degrees. For certain majors or technical fields, some schools have already done so.

But “it’s not systemic,” he said. And while many state community colleges have done a good job of laying out the pathway of courses students must take for technical or career-oriented degrees and certificates, those paths aren’t nearly as clear for students who want to use community college as a launchpad to a bachelor’s degree.

The grant will help the schools more fully design pathways that will help students pick the right courses.

That, in turn, will help students more easily transfer to a four-year school, with all of the credits they earn in community college counting toward the student’s intended major.

For example, Columbia Basin College in Pasco recently struck an agreement with Eastern Washington University that helps students pick the classes they need in community college based on their intended major at Eastern. The agreement assures students that courses they take at Columbia Basin will count toward their major — easing the transfer path between the two schools.

College Spark is the group that awarded the new grant to the community colleges here, and it runs for eight years. All 34 of this state’s community and technical colleges will compete for the money this spring. Five will receive funding in 2016, with another five winners announced in 2018. State officials say the lessons learned will be broadly applicable, so they also can be used by colleges that don’t get the grant money.

On Wednesday, researcher Jenkins spoke to hundreds of Washington community- and technical-college administrators during a conference at Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood. He is one of the authors of a book, “Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success,” about fundamentally redesigning the nation’s two-year schools.

He said that creating a road map of majors and career fields is a big change for a community-college system, and faculty members often fear that courses they teach will be eliminated, resulting in layoffs. Others worryrigid sets of courses and majors won’t allow students to explore different career paths, or to explore intellectual interests that aren’t career oriented.

The trick is to map out programs more clearly, then require a general major field, but in a way that allows students to keep their options open, Jenkins said.

Layoffs are not common at colleges that have adopted pathways — indeed, some schools have had to hire more advisers to accommodate the new pathways, he said.

Jenkins praised the Washington higher-education system, saying there’s an unusually high degree of cooperation between the state’s community colleges and its universities. That’s led to unique partnerships, such as an engineering degree offered by Olympic College in Bremerton through a partnership with Washington State University.

And through the community-college system, the state has been able to offer a cost-effective college education to a broad swath of the population, Jenkins said.

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