State community colleges hope to boost college completion rates with $2.5 million in grant money that will be used to help students choose courses more wisely.

Share story

Heather Bennett calls it the “death by choice overload” problem: Community college students are often so overwhelmed by all the different possible directions their studies could take that they don’t choose courses wisely.

But Bennett, the executive director of institutional effectiveness and resource development for Everett Community College, says the state’s community colleges are working on a fix.

This month, five Washington community colleges — including Everett — won $2.5 million in grant money to change the way they advise college students. (The other winners were South Seattle College, Pierce College, Peninsula College in Port Angeles and South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia.) The money comes from the nonprofit College Spark Washington.

The grant is for a concept called “guided pathways,” which Bennett says is just a new term that describes work that Everett and other community colleges have been doing for years.

Community college experts believe they need to be more explicit in outlining what courses students must complete — and what other steps they need to take — to get a job in a specific field.

In order to make the idea work, colleges will need to redesign their degree programs and offerings into pathways that help a student earn a credential that leads to a job, or a two-year degree that transfers to a four-year college.

At Everett Community College, for example, the faculty will spend the next several years reworking parts of the curriculum, making sure the courses students take to earn a particular degree include the skills an employer would expect graduates to have.

The colleges also will use some of the grant funds to create “meta-majors” that allow students to explore a range of careers within a broad subject area.

One example is health care. Students in that meta-major could become nurses, medical assistants or medical transcriptionists, to name a few examples. All of those careers start with a foundation of courses that teach certain basic skills, Bennett said.

Each of the five colleges will receive technical support and assistance from the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, and $500,000 in grant funding. In 2018, College Spark will choose five additional colleges to receive grants.

Bennett draws from personal experience with this work. In college, she majored in English because she thought it was the best way to win a job at a regional magazine she admired. But she never talked to an adviser about other steps she might need to take to make that happen.

Instead, one of her peers — who’d done a magazine internship while she was a student — got the job instead. After Bennett graduated, she said, her first job was receptionist at a chicken-packing plant.