Paul Francis, the new head of the state’s community college system, is worried too many students have soured on the idea of going to college.
He’s unsure the word is getting out that they might qualify for Washington’s generous financial aid program. And he’s still scratching his head over why two-year enrollment here has dropped so precipitously, although he has some theories.
Francis became executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges in August, after more than 10 years leading the state Council of Presidents, which serves Washington’s public four-year schools.
In his new role, he oversees 34 community and technical colleges, from Bellingham to Walla Walla, with the largest concentration in the Greater Seattle area. In the 2021-22 academic year, those colleges served 261,000 students, offering everything from basic adult education classes to bachelor’s degrees in computer science.
In this interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, Francis talks about what education leaders need to do now to show prospective students that a degree is within reach.
Nationally, community college enrollment is down about 13% between fall 2019 and fall 2021, but the numbers are much worse in Washington — we’re down 20%. Why are our state numbers so bad?
It’s a great question. I offer a couple of ideas … The economic and health impacts of COVID hit community and technical college students and their families harder than other sectors, given the demographic of who we serve — particularly with people losing jobs early in the pandemic … Lake Washington Institute of Technology was kind of ground zero in our state. [LWTech was one of the first community colleges in the country to shut down after several students were exposed to COVID while interning at Life Care Center of Kirkland in February 2020.] We were ahead of the curve in closing down before a lot of other places.
Particularly when you think of the makeup of our programs, we have a lot of professional technical programs and apprenticeships — those are harder programs to move online. We have more of those than community college systems in other states. If you’re in an academic program, taking English or math, it was a little bit easier to transition to remote learning … Try teaching welding remotely! It’s very hands-on.
And the final thing is that perhaps we’re impacted by the length of our programs. If you’re in a four-year program, and the pandemic started, if [you’ve] already got two years in, [you’re] going to tough it out. Many of our students weren’t in the pipeline in the same way that four-year students were. Particularly in the fall of 2020, many of our students thought, I’m not ready to start. I’m going to go later.
We hear anecdotally that younger students — Gen Z and millennials — question the value of a college degree, and are especially worried about going into debt. What should they know about community college that might change their minds?
This is one of the things that keeps me up at night. If you look at the polling data, there’s increasing skepticism among the public about the value of a college degree [and] college affordability, they’re concerned about debt load … I think people believe the ability to attend college is limited, they just don’t see a pathway. I think the good news is the public is more likely to believe that community and technical colleges are affordable and provide education in a timely manner. What we’ve found in our surveys is 8 in 10 Washingtonians have some connection with their local community or technical college.
I think we have to do a couple things as higher-ed leaders: We need to talk about college as a big umbrella. When a lot of people think about college, they think about the four-year pathway. We don’t talk enough about professional technical education, the trades, apprenticeships … those are programs we offer. We also need to do a better job of talking about the return on investment. You are much more likely to do better in the labor market, if you look at your chances of being employed, your long-term earnings. And there’s a whole host of public benefits to getting a college degree. Your health outcomes are better, you’re more likely to volunteer, you’re more likely to vote.
We need to talk about the availability of aid. We’ve got one of the best state aid programs in the country [the Washington College Grant] and yet we’re 49th in FAFSA [federal student financial aid] completions. [This year so far, Washington is doing a little better — it ranks 43rd among the states.] Clearly, we’re not doing good enough of a job getting the word out. Too few think they qualify or even know about the FAFSA. And finally we need to tell Washingtonians that you can balance work, family and school obligations. You can go part time. You can take classes online. Oftentimes people think they can’t balance all of those things.
One common complaint about community colleges is that they don’t offer students enough guidance, and not all credits transfer to a four-year program. What are you doing to fix that?
We’ve been focused on now, since 2015 or 2016, guided pathways, the idea of really restructuring the student onboarding/advising processes, and helping narrow down choices for students earlier so they get on that pathway, because it can feel so overwhelming, particularly for first-generation students. We know that’s essential to improving our retention and completion rates.
We have something called the Direct Transfer Agreement … If a student completes the 90 credits, they have priority consideration in the admissions process [to four-year colleges and universities in Washington]. Their lower division general education requirements are done. Most of the students who transfer from a community college to a four-year institution transfer with that degree … And we offer 140 applied baccalaureate degrees, in a variety of fields from health care to IT and more. And then just two years ago, we received authorization from the Legislature to offer a Bachelor of Science in computer science, systemwide. [Currently, North Seattle College and Bellevue College are offering a BS in computer science, with more programs in the pipeline.] You don’t even necessarily need to leave your community college to get a four-year degree.
What have you learned about the community college system, and what has surprised you?
One would be how invested people are in the community and technical college system. I think people see the value of working together, of unity, of collaboration. I think that’s really powerful, I think that’s part of why we’re so highly regarded nationally … we do things together, we don’t piecemeal. I think about how agile community and technical colleges can be — I knew that conceptually, the idea that an employer would come to a community and technical college and say, we’re really interested in a short-term training program or even an associate degree, can we have some conversations on that? I think it’s a hallmark of what community and technical colleges do.
One of the things I try to do is meet with students, and one of the things I consistently hear across the state is that many are struggling with basic needs right now: How to meet food insecurity, housing insecurity, even beyond that — child care, we know mental health needs have exploded during the pandemic … Students often don’t know how to access campus or public resources, so how do we do a better job of that?
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