Island Forum | Obama’s graduation initiative will benefit everyone

Whether you lean left or right, there is something to like in President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative.

With economic shadows showing hints of receding, his community college initiative readies an effective catalyst that will help a nascent recovery take root and grow.

I support his proposals because, at Bellevue College, we’ve already seen evidence that they work.

Let’s step back a moment to look at the problem that Obama is targeting: Nationally, the college dropout rate is unacceptably high.

At Bellevue College, 46 percent of our students complete their programs or finish early to take a job in their field or transfer into a bachelor’s degree program. That’s a respectable result given the fact that, compared to their counterparts at four-year institutions, community college students are far more likely to be struggling financially, contending with inadequate academic preparation, or holding down full-time jobs and caring for families while in school.

But it’s still a tragedy when such factors prevent so many students from succeeding — especially when, in a normal economy, more than half of King County employers can’t find enough people with the right skills for today’s jobs; especially when poverty on the Eastside has shot up by more than one-third in the past decade; and especially when, statewide, one-third of working-age adults have less than a full high school education.

The president targets this challenge through several proposals, the primary ones being:

• A “College Access and Completion Fund,” to finance new approaches to keeping students in school.

• A “Community College Challenge Fund,” which, among other goals, will expand support services for students, such as tutoring and childcare.

Both proposals provide additional support for programs and initiatives that help keep students in school. Based on Bellevue College’s experience, you should have confidence that this type of approach can work. Our broad student success initiative, launched just two years ago, has already produced remarkable results.

Our approach emphasizes two key elements: A required First-Year Experience (FYE) seminar that teaches academic “survival skills” and helps students build networks for ongoing support; and a requirement for first-time students to meet with an academic advisor to plan a clear and efficient path toward their educational goals.

In just our first year of these programs, over 80 percent of students who participated in all three days of FYE re-enrolled for the entire academic year, an improvement of at least 10 percentage points over prior years.

At the same time, our comprehensive, ‘wrap-around’ support services — such as tutoring, ongoing advising, counseling and childcare — also clearly lower the barriers to staying in school.

Bellevue College provides comprehensive assistance for students who are challenged with disabilities, come from low-income families, lack sufficient literacy or academic skills, need individual tutoring and counseling, or require help with childcare, transportation or personal emergencies.

While these services require a sizeable investment of staff time, which has been imperiled due to recent budget reductions, evidence from our college and others nationally show that such services make an incredible difference. Our TRiO program, a federally-funded program that provides a broad range of very intensive support services for some of the most at-risk students, keeps 93 percent of its students in the program from year to year. Its clients are more than twice as likely to complete their college programs than typical community college students nationally.

We know this approach works. An up-front investment in student support yields higher returns in the form of more students holding credentials to contribute to the economy of their region. But it requires more resources than most colleges have.

By propagating such programs across the nation, Obama’s American Graduation Initiative will make winners not only of students but also of businesses, taxpayers and whole communities.

Businesses win because the workforce will be more appropriately prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s jobs.

Taxpayers win because more people will be gainfully employed and sharing in our overall tax-paying responsibility.

Communities win because more education means less poverty, less crime, and reduced outlays for government-supported social services.

Students win because, with exactly the skills and abilities employers need, they can achieve their aspirations and secure their families’ futures.

By revving the community college engines, the American Graduation Initiative can carry us all to the winner’s circle.

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