The leader of Washington’s community and technical college system says she wants to set an ambitious goal: doubling completion rates at the state’s two-year schools by 2030.

Related to this goal, community college leaders across the state say there is a particular urgency to close completion gaps between white students and underrepresented students of color.

“Our goal is to move those completion rates faster than the other completion rates,” said Jan Yoshiwara, executive director of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. “The whole issue of eliminating equity gaps is the central theme around our new vision statement.”

The community and technical college system hasn’t officially adopted the completion-rate goal, but plans to take it up at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges next meeting, which is set for March 23-24 in Olympia.

Administrators are considering these goals now as part of their strategic planning, and a new surge in state financial aid could help more low- and middle-income students get a degree on time, some experts say. And many schools are looking to an overhaul in the community colleges’ academic and advising structure through a new program, Guided Pathways, which is already showing some promise.

Targeting completion rates at community colleges could help close gaps in educational outcomes between student groups because the schools are some of Washington’s most racially diverse institutions of higher education. Of the roughly 362,860 students enrolled, about 47% identify as people of color, Washington community college data shows; roughly 31% of Washingtonians identify themselves this way.

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Community college completion rates are low in Washington: Just over a third of all students complete school — and another 9% transfer elsewhere — within four years of enrolling. That’s twice as long as many community college programs are supposed to take. In Seattle, nearly 90% of students who enroll at the city’s three community colleges say they intend to complete a degree or certificate, officials say. But similar to the state average, a third or fewer students actually do so within four years.

“That doesn’t mean 75% of students changed their mind and they got exactly what they wanted,” said Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap, president of South Seattle College. “That means the system is failing.”

For some students of color, statewide completion rates are even lower: 26% of Black and 27% of Native American students finish in four years. (A little more than a third of white and Latino students, and 43% of Asian students, complete school in this period.) Washington’s statistics largely mirror nationwide trends that show lower completion rates among underrepresented students of color.

Students of color are more likely to face systemic challenges: They are more likely to come from low-income homes and they are less likely to pass placement tests into college-level coursework, possibly because of inequities that are endemic in societal and education systems. These students may be less likely to feel at home on certain campuses where a majority of faculty and staff are white, as is the case at many community colleges in Washington.

Community college students, on the whole, also have a greater diversity of life experiences — and challenges — than typical four-year college students, said Victoria Yuen, policy analyst for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning policy institute in Washington, D.C. These students are more likely to have children, rely on public transportation to travel from home to class, or work a job that shortens the time they can commit to studying.

Financial aid may ease these stresses, Yuen said, but, she said, “even if money is there, it might just not be worth it to them.”

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In Washington, low- and middle-income students are now eligible for full or partial tuition to the state’s public colleges and universities through a program called the Washington College Grant. The grant received national fanfare and is considered one of the most generous statewide financial aid programs in the United States. But because the grant is so new, it’s unclear whether it will help close racial equity gaps at the community college level.

Research on other large-scale financial aid programs offers little insight. Studies that have examined grants promised to certain student groups tend to focus on four-year schools, said Laura Perna, professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania, who studies these so-called “promise programs.” No studies have looked at how financial aid programs affect the outcomes of students of color at two-year colleges, she said. And of the data that does exist, she said, there’s no consensus on whether promise programs help close racial equity gaps.

Community college leaders say the new Guided Pathways program may also help more students of color complete school on time. As part of the program, the 34 schools will split about $32 million in new state funding to hire more academic counselors.

Washington community colleges are also beginning to change how courses are sequenced, and in the process, easing the path to a degree.

For instance, some schools have adjusted how students pass from remedial to college-level course work. Students take remedial classes when their schools determine that they didn’t graduate high school on grade level in core subject areas. But the classes aren’t for credit and can delay graduation. About half of Washington high school graduates enroll in remedial classes when they enter community college, and students of color are more likely to do so, community college officials say.

The Guided Pathways program is in its early stages, but data from a pilot hint at early signs of success. At South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia, which received a grant to launch the Guided Pathways program a few years ago, 41% of new students completed a college-level math class and 56% completed college-level English in 2018. This is up 14 percentage points and 10 percentage points, respectively, from the prior five-year averages in these subject areas.

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At South Puget Sound, administrators noticed that the all students are benefiting from the changes, but the gap between students of color and white students isn’t shrinking, said Kelly Green, chief community relations officer at the college.

Experts say they expect to see some progress, but say schools must do more to redesign a system that Rimando-Chareunsap calls “perfectly designed to get racially inequitable outcomes.”

Financial aid and the pathways program “represent a great first step that will likely show increases in completion rates and helping to reduce equity gaps,” said Jonathan Turk, associate director for research at the American Council on Education, a higher education advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.

“The next part of it is realizing even with those two things, there’s still more work to be done.”

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