A new report shows that South King County students who go to community colleges are far more likely to finish their degrees if they enroll full time.

Share story

In one of the first comprehensive looks at community-college-graduation rates for students from South King County, one fact stood out: Full-time students graduated at a much higher rate than part-time ones.

That’s perhaps not surprising, but the importance of attending full time was a revelation for Mary Jean Ryan, who directs the group that wrote the study, Community Center for Education Results (CCER).

“If a student could simply go to community college full time, the rates of completion are staggeringly higher,” Ryan said.

And Ryan has hit on a novel proposal: Encourage businesses to help by giving students more predictable schedules, so they can more easily structure their jobs around their classes.

“A lot of employers are asking how they can help the young people of our region,” she said.

The study focuses on seven community and technical colleges — Bellevue, Green River and Highline colleges, Renton Technical College and the three campuses of the Seattle Colleges system (North, Central and South Seattle). Those colleges were chosen because 51 percent of college-going graduates in South King County’s class of 2011 enrolled in those schools.

Most college-completion reports don’t take such a detailed look at students from a specific region and examine how they fare after they get to college. And part-time students often are not counted, Ryan said.

Because CCER is focused on doubling the number of students in its region who are on track to graduate from college or earn a career credential, it wanted a deeper look.

Researchers found that more than half the South King County students who went to community college full time had, within three years, completed a degree or certificate, or transferred to a four-year college.

For the students who attended part time? Only a quarter had achieved those goals — and more than a third of them had dropped out altogether. (It’s possible that some moved out of the area and transferred to a different college, but that data could not be tracked.)

The report also shows that taking rigorous classes before college makes a big difference, too. More than half the students who took Running Start — community-college courses open to high-school students — had completed a degree or certificate, or transferred, in five years. Only 28 percent of students who did not take Running Start had completed a credential or transferred in three years.

CCER, a nonprofit, is assisting a regionwide effort called the Road Map Project to improve education in South King County schools, schools with some of the highest poverty rates and most diverse enrollments. Its work includes extensive data collection and analysis to figure out how to better help those students.

Going to college part time is more common than not for students in the Road Map Project’s high-school class of 2011 — which includes the districts of Auburn, Federal Way, Highline, Kent, Renton, Tukwila and the southern half of Seattle. In the group measured, just 38 percent who enrolled in community college did so full time.

Fifty-eight percent of the region’s community-college-bound students were not academically ready to take a college-level course when they entered college, the report says. More than half had to enroll in pre-college courses, which don’t result in college credit.

The report also shows a persistent gap between the graduation rates of white students, and those who are black, Hispanic or Native American. Only about a fifth of African-American, Hispanic and Native-American students who go to area community colleges complete a degree, or transfer, at the end of three years.

That’s significantly worse than white and Asian students. About 43 percent of white students in the South King County region who go to community college complete a degree, or earn a credential such as a vocational certificate, in three years, according to the CCER study. For Asian students, the number is 38 percent.

Ryan said minority students are often the ones least likely to go to college full time, and historically, were often discouraged from taking more rigorous classes. But some high schools in the Road Map area — such as Foster High School in Tukwila, and Rainier Beach in Seattle — have shown remarkable improvement in recent years by offering more rigorous classes to everyone.

When students of color are given access to tough classes, along with strong support, “You can start to see these historical patterns break down,” she said.

The report includes recommendations, including more funding for the State Need Grant, the state’s financial-aid program for low-income Washington high-school graduates who attend schools in-state. It calls for continued support of the College Bound Scholarship program, a program that guarantees college money to students who sign up by the 8th grade, maintain a C average and stay out of legal trouble. It also calls on the Legislature to provide more funding for community and technical colleges.

And it calls on colleges to offer culturally-responsive programs to help close the gaps.

The report writers said one program that’s showing promising results is the Umoja Black Scholars program at Highline College, which offers a college education viewed through an African-American lens. “That’s the hook — it gets them engaged,” said Liz Word, a faculty member in communications studies and faculty coordinator for Umoja Black Scholars. Teaching subjects such as American history from a cultural context allows students to “see themselves in their educations, for many of them the first time.”

Umoja is a Swahili word that means unity, and the program is modeled after a similar program in California where students take the same classes together.

Ryan said many educational initiatives have been launched in the Road Map area since 2011, when the students studied in this report graduated from high school. This report will serve a baseline, she said, to measure if Road Map initiatives are making a difference.