Fewer Tacoma students are completing college. New program aims to change that

More students in Tacoma are graduating high school, but graduating college is another story.

Fewer students enrolled and completed college last year than in previous years, according to a new report released by Graduate Tacoma, a community movement with the Foundation for Tacoma Students.

The foundation is the backbone organization for Graduate Tacoma, which is made up of 265 community partners working toward success of students “from cradle to college and career.”

In 2017, 49 percent of graduating students enrolled in college compared to 58 percent in 2010, according to the latest data.

In 2017, 53 percent of students who enrolled in college received their degrees within six years, compared to 57 percent in 2010.

The decline is an area of concern for Graduate Tacoma leaders, who set a goal to increase the percentage of Tacoma Public Schools graduates who complete a two- or four-year college or technical certificate by 50 percent by the Class of 2020.

“Unfortunately, we’re not there yet,” said Tafona Ervin, executive director of Foundation for Tacoma Students.

The reasons for the decline in college enrollment and completion varies, Tacoma Superintendent Carla Santorno said.

For one, students have more options.

The district’s seen an increase in the number of students earning certifications in high school that lead to family-wage jobs.

The district also doesn’t track how many students go to college after serving in the military.

“I do have a sense that we have a lot more students that have identified that post-secondary path and are using it, and it’s not always a four-year university,” Santorno said.

Tacoma Public Schools tracks students’ next steps by collecting Verification of Acceptance at Next Institution, or VANI forms.

In response to the declining rates, Graduate Tacoma is helping to launch Tacoma Completes, an initiative to help Tacoma students enroll and complete college.

“It’s time for us to think as a movement, how do we wrap our hands around our students, help them through the nuances and the unknown of college and get them through persistence and completion?” Ervin said.

College-training nonprofit Degrees of Change is partnering with Graduate Tacoma to identify barriers to college completion and design strategies to tackle those barriers.

“Tacoma Completes is looking to create more of a system where we understand those factors as they come in, and we’re preparing for them as opposed to being reactive to what those challenges are,” Ervin said.

The program will work to eliminate disparities in college completion rates across both racial and economic groups, Degrees of Change Executive Director Tim Herron told The News Tribune in an email.

“We will also engage with key stakeholders in other sectors that impact student success, like housing, transportation and mental health,” Herron said.

The program is expected to launch by 2020. The partners are in the process of selecting a director.

Graduation rates show that Tacoma students are capable but need support, Ervin said. In 2017, Graduate Tacoma reached an 89 percent graduation rate, reaching its goal to raise rates by 50 percent by the Class of 2020.

The biggest challenge students are facing when it comes to enrolling and staying in college isn’t finances, Ervin said.

“While it is a factor, it’s more housing insecurity, food insecurity and the need to take care of children, family or others,” she said.

The district and Graduate Tacoma are working with Tacoma Housing Authority for the initiative. The housing authority is providing vouchers to students to help with housing.

Graduate Tacoma’s 2019 Impact Report shows that of Tacoma students who identify as homeless, 79 percent graduate — more than the state average of 56 percent.

“We are exploring right now … what it would look like to help with screening fees, which is a financial barrier, or background checks, which sometimes can be a barrier to a student getting into their own housing for the first time,” Ervin said.

The complete 2019 Impact Report is available online at