Just 37.5 percent of community college students graduate from a two- or four-year institution within six years.

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Jessica Crowe is a single mom who serves as a medic in the Army Reserve, interns at a physical therapy office, raises two young kids, one of whom has autism, helps with her sister’s baby, coaches basketball, and is two courses away from completing her associate degree with a 3.97 at Pierce College Fort Steilacoom in Lakewood.

It sounds like a lot, because it is.

“I’ve juggled a lot for the past year and a half, but you wouldn’t be able to tell if you looked at my transcripts,” she says. Crowe, 29, held off on returning to school for 10 years because she wasn’t sure she could do it all. When she first started college, she didn’t know what she wanted to do.

“I was a general studies major, then theater, then psychology, then poli-sci. I had taken a lot of different classes that didn’t amount to anything. I hadn’t met with my adviser at all. I realized I was kind of wasting my time.”

Working as a medic, she discovered a passion for helping people. When she moved to the Northwest, she started researching physical therapy schools. She met with a Pacific Lutheran University adviser who sent her to back to community college to get two years of undergrad done – “for way less money.” The credits will count toward her degree at a four-year university.

Finding a career path
Crowe enrolled at Pierce College in Puyallup, where she was connected with the Guided Pathways program, renamed Career Pathways at Pierce based on student feedback. The approach, used in Washington’s community and technical colleges, is a step-by-step road map through a two-year degree. It simplifies choices, grouping courses together to form clear paths through college and into careers, whether students start those careers right after their college graduation or transfer to a university for continued study.

Advisers help students choose a path, stay on the path and get a degree or certificate. “It’s been incredibly helpful,” Crowe says. “We came up with an education plan for my entire time at Pierce: when classes were available, prereqs, and what I needed that might not be essential, like extra credit to be considered full time. Alleviating the stress of figuring what classes to take might seem small but feeling like you’re not doing it by yourself makes it easier. When registration rolls around, you know where you are timewise. Everything is laid out in front of you.”

Vice President of Learning & Student Success at Pierce College Matthew Campbell says “Students who have an explicit college plan are more likely to achieve their academic goals … and more likely to graduate on time and with the skills employers need and/or the preparation for transfer to a partner institution.”

Saving students time and money
They’re also more likely to save time and money. Many students become overwhelmed or take unnecessary credits as they try to decide what to study and which classes to take. Pierce Data Solutions Developer Carly Haddon says in 2016, about 16 percent of Pierce students were taking at least five credits more than they needed for their degree, amounting to 13,000 excess credits, or $3 million dollars per year. A clear path clarifies the courses needed to get students out into the workforce or to a transfer school faster, which is especially important for students with limited financial resources.

Guided Pathways is a step-by-step road map through a two-year degree. (Provided by Partnership for Learning)

Eliminating barriers – and the achievement gap
Campbell says Career Pathways is an effective strategy for “increasing college completion rates and closing achievement gaps for low-income students and students of color, many of whom are first-generation students who do not have the privilege of having someone in their family who attended college before them who can make sense of how to progress through higher education.” Pierce College data confirms its success so far.

Haddon reports, “The gap in successful course completion of English 101 between white and black students has decreased 32 percent in the last four years while increasing overall success by 8 percent.” Pierce has seen a 14 percent increase in year-to-year retention and a 60 percent increase in degrees and certificates since 2010.

Heather M. Gingerich is senior program officer at College Spark Washington in Seattle, a nonprofit which funds programs to increase college success and close equity gaps for low-income students in Washington state. “Research shows that students who enroll in a specific program of study are much more likely to complete their credential than students who enroll in college and take classes ‘cafeteria style,’ ” she says.

College Spark Washington is providing more than $7 million in private grant funding to support development of Guided Pathway programs at 10 of the state’s 34 community and technical colleges.

Pathways is provided to all students at Pierce and many other schools, Gingerich says, adding that “Most colleges in Washington are working to implement at least some aspects of Guided Pathways.”

The end game

Washington Roundtable is supporting expansion of the Guided Pathways program in the 2019-21 biennium. “The Guided Pathways program has demonstrated success in supporting and ensuring more students complete a post-high school credential, which is critical if we are going to increase the credential attainment rate from 40 percent to our goal of 70 percent by the high school class of 2030,” says Neil Strege, vice president of the Washington Roundtable.

Crowe is on track to graduate this spring with a degree in applied science, which she plans to apply toward a four-year degree and a doctorate. Her goal is to become a physical therapist. She’s continued her internship after completing the 120 hours for her degree, because she enjoys it. Crowe says, “School the second time around has been “a way better use of my time. It feels like my hard work is paying off.”

Partnership for Learning, the education foundation of the Washington Roundtable, brings together business leaders and education partners to improve our state’s education system, so Washington students are ready to pursue the career pathways of their choice. Learn more at partnership4learning.org/credentialessential.