For nearly all who enroll, college is a pit stop on the way to a career. For Jan Yoshiwara, who will soon retire as the executive director of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges — college was the career.
In the 1970s, Yoshiwara was officially enrolled as a premed student at the University of California, Davis. But as a student of the civil rights movement, she changed her mind about med school and instead left school with the goal of ensuring college was in reach for students on the margins. After more than four decades of working in higher education, most of them spent working in various roles at the college board, that calling hasn’t changed.
“Our state needs to do a better job of reaching out to low-income students to get them to college,” said Yoshiwara, who will leave her post at the end of July.
During her tenure, Washington became one of the first states in the nation to offer applied bachelor’s degrees — which allow people with 2-year technical degrees to finish off a bachelor’s degree at a community or technical college. Colleges also began receiving funds from the state based on students’ progress toward their degrees as well as their enrollments.
She leaves the system at a difficult time. Higher education, and community colleges in particular, have seen unprecedented falling enrollment due to the pandemic. In some aspects, she says, the landscape has stayed the same for decades, including the direct college-going rate for high school graduates, around 60%. In 2020, Yoshiwara set the ambitious goal of doubling the graduation rate at two-year colleges by 2030. In her words, the state is making good progress, but “we’re still not there yet.”
Reflecting on her career last month, Yoshiwara says there is plenty to be proud of.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were you like as a college student?
I was in high school when student activism was very high. There were protests at San Francisco State University, which is 15, 20 miles away from where I grew up. I was very influenced by that … I had a social studies teacher in high school who was very progressive and he taught us in real time what was going on … My mother was another factor. She was a homemaker and very active in the PTA … She wanted to go to the first Asian American forum at University of California Berkeley. But she was in her 40s and she was afraid to go by herself, and she implored me to go with her.
When I went off to college, I was trying to figure out how to be a student activist and graduate with a bachelor’s degree at the same time. It was almost like I had a split personality when I was an undergraduate because premed is a very challenging major and you don’t get there unless you devote all of your effort to your classes. I’m not trying to disparage people who go to medical school or who were premed, but the bent of people I was in classes with was different from the bent of the people I was doing work with to organize rallies and sit-ins.
What made you want to work in higher education?
I was lucky enough to be selected to be a student representative on the Educational Opportunity Program Admissions Committee [at UC Davis]. That committee was … deciding what the alternative admissions requirements were going to be for students who weren’t regularly admissible. I realized that what we were doing was setting policy … that was gonna decide who was gonna get into the university and who wasn’t. And that that decision would impact classes for years to come. It was a pretty startling realization … that I could work in higher education in an arena that could influence access to education for underrepresented students and low income students. I finished my bachelor’s degree, and I started hunting for a graduate program in higher education administration. And I found a 12-month program at Western Washington University.
… I grew up middle class and with racism because of my Japanese heritage. My parents raised me to go to college and I realized most people didn’t have that opportunity. So I wanted to work in an arena where social and economic mobility could happen.
You’ve spent your entire career working at the community college level. Why?
… You don’t have to have a special program to reach out to students of color, underrepresented students, low-income students, because that’s the purpose of the entire community or technical college. So I decided that because that’s … the area I wanted to work in, that I should work at a community college. So that’s what I did. My first job was minority affairs director at Pierce College in 1978.
Do you feel like the issues you were fighting for back then are different now?
Somewhat, but not really. I tried to help Pierce College get more diverse among the faculty … I got on the academic dismissal policy committee because I knew that students were struggling academically and with their financial aid [which is sometimes tied to academic performance] … Those issues around student support and financial support are still true today.
… And so one of the initiatives that my colleagues at the state board worked really hard on has been the Guided Pathways. And we were lucky to get funding from College Spark Washington, which is a local foundation, to pilot guided pathways with 10 of our colleges. And they made a significant, eight-year commitment. We were able to demonstrate some success to the Legislature and parlay that into a state appropriation so that all of our colleges got some money to implement Guided Pathways.
What do you make of the way the pandemic has hit community college enrollment? What were the lessons learned?
The majority of the students we serve in the community technical college sector have part-time or full-time jobs, and [the pandemic] had a much bigger effect on us than it did on the university sectors. We have to figure out how to address the other things that are going on in people’s lives that are barriers for them to go to college or cause them to defer … until their kids are back in school or until they have child care. It has made us aware about a broader role that we have around helping people who want to go to college and get college credentials to get jobs that require those credentials and skills, to think a little more broadly about how we support students.
What are the greatest challenges you faced and still faced?
… Resources. We’ve made some good gains recently … [But] community colleges are very heavily dependent upon the state for both operating funds and capital construction. We don’t have taxing authority like school districts do.
… The falling enrollment issue — it’s kind of one of the elephants in the room. What it means is that people in our state who are looking for social and economic mobility through a college degree — that fewer people are able to take advantage of that opportunity. The community and technical college sector is the major provider of front-line workers for the state’s employers. If we have fewer people in those programs, in our technical programs, that means there are fewer newly trained technical workers who are going out into the economy.
What is your advice to your successor?
… To continue the coalitions that we have built with business and labor because that’s how we’re gonna get further faster — if we’re working together collectively. We have set that up now as an expectation in the college system. I don’t think it’ll be challenging for our successor to continue doing that good work.