Suzanne Buchholz, Senior Reporter
Pierce College has seen an increase in graduation rates for the past five years following the introduction of various programs and changes to classes to increase student success.
Pierce has received national acclaim for its efforts, including being awarded the Leah Meyer Austin Award, which celebrates advancements through the Achieving the Dream program.
Thomas Broxson, Dean of Natural Sciences, said the college’s main focus in terms of increasing graduation rates has been in improving retention of students and completion of degrees and certificates. They’re also striving to close achievement gaps spanning from different ethnic, racial, age and income groups that might deter students from being able to graduate otherwise.
“We’re really trying to raise all the boats, trying to get everybody to be more successful and at the same time trying to close those achievement gaps that are evident in higher education,” Broxson said.
In most community colleges across the nation, the retention rate of students from fall quarter in one year to fall quarter the next year is about 40 percent, meaning most students don’t make it through the first year. The retention rate from fall to winter quarters is about 20 percent, with many students leaving within the first few weeks of fall term, Broxson said.
In the last five years Pierce has increased these levels. The retention rate from fall to winter quarter grew from 80 to 88 percent. The retention of students after one year increased from 51 to 60 percent. The most significant increase has been in three-year graduation rates, Broxson said. In the past the rate of students earning a degree at Pierce was only about 18.7 percent, but has since increased to about 31.4 percent.
“To get all of those numbers to move, we’ve been intentional in terms of changing our practices as an institution, changing our policies to try and get those numbers to change,” Broxson said. “It’s not accidental.”
One of the main reasons behind this influx of graduation rates is Pierce’s partnership with Achieving the Dream, which they joined in 2012, Broxson said. Achieving the Dream is a national non-profit organization that works toward creating inclusive and accessible learning environments in community colleges, focusing on increasing student success and getting more students to be able to attend college.
“We’ve been really all in with that effort,” Broxson said. “We have two coaches that are supplied by that organization that have been helping us focus on what we need to do. And we put in place more than 40 different interventions over the last five years.”
The interventions put in place at the college include various aspects for increasing student success. One initiative was to require mandatory orientation sessions and college success classes for new students seeking a degree, based on its effectiveness in other colleges in the country. The college has also expanded tutoring options and redesigned the pre-college math and English courses so students would be able to acquire the skills necessary to do well in college.
Broxson said these interventions will serve as foundational pieces for Pierce’s next project, which will be implementing the Guided Pathways Initiative. Guided Pathways aims to simplify a student’s options at college within their chosen course of education, so that they avoid confusion over what classes are required and what direction they need to take to fulfill their degree.
“Right now what we have is, you come to Pierce College and there’s a lot of choices, and those choices can be overwhelming,” Broxson said. “So what we’ll be doing is scaffolding those choices as students move through the institution so that they can start making progress towards a degree from day one and then continue to make progress towards a degree.”
The increase in graduation rates has had a positive effect on students, both those who are graduating with degrees as well as those who will continue their educations beyond Pierce.
“I’m a Running Start student, I graduate this June,” student Talia Holtmeyer said. “I’m ready, I’m going to Washington State University in the fall and I feel ready to get started.”
Other students thought the increase reflected well on the college’s reputation and student success.
“I think it’s awesome,” student Cyanne Styf said. “It shows that the school is evolving and professors are having a bigger impact on students.”
Broxson said the college will continue to strive toward increasing the graduation rate of students. Pierce’s current goal is to have a three-year graduation rate of 45 percent by 2020, which would be a roughly 14 percent increase between 2017 and then.
“(The 31.4 percent increase) is as good an improvement, a better improvement than any (other) college in the country,” Broxson said. “It’s something that we’re getting a lot of attention for.”
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