Pierce College pursues adults who didn’t finish high school

Mallery Tickle is a 29-year-old single mother who wants to spend more time with her daughter. Jacob Gottschalk is a 25-year-old steel scaffolding builder who wants to make up for youthful indiscretions.

Both are high school dropouts who wanted to go back to school and did.

Although they dropped out for different reasons, Tickle and Gottschalk share a common goal: to earn their high school diploma and get a degree.

“I know what the flip side is,” Gottschalk said. “The flip side is you don’t go anywhere.”

After more than a decade working long hours at dead-end jobs, Tickle and Gottschalk found themselves at Pierce College.

They’re taking advantage of a program that waives tuition for adult students completing their high school diploma or GED and who are simultaneously taking college courses.

All students have to pay is $25 per quarter to earn their high school diploma.

Pierce College began the program in 2014. Since then, 560 students have enrolled.

College Chancellor Michele Johnson said the new program is consistent with a larger mission.

“The whole philosophy of community college,” she said, “ is to provide open access.”

There were roughly 60,000 adults in Pierce County without high school diplomas last year, said Johnson, citing U.S. Census data.

“If students could see they are college material, that they do have the capability to complete college, they are more likely to continue their education,” she said.

Johnson is quick to cite state education goals as motives for why the college’s board of trustees voted to waive tuition costs.

They include:

▪ All adults ages 25 to 44 should have a high school diploma or equivalent by 2023;

▪ At least 70 percent of adults 25 to 44 should have a post-secondary credential by 2023.

By next year nearly three-fourths of available living-wage jobs will require at least a post-secondary credential. In the next 20 years, Washington will not produce enough high school graduates to meet the the higher education needs of the state’s workforce, according to a report by the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Older adults will be needed to fill the gap, the report states.

Schools care about meeting these education goals in part because state funding is tied to their success.

Community and technical colleges receive money based on academic milestones accomplished. They receive additional points for adult students based on the state funding model, according to the state Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

A majority of the state’s 34 community and technical colleges offer classes aimed at increasing the number of adults earning high school diplomas. Pierce is one of the first to waive college tuition for these students.

Pierce modeled its courses after the state program High School 21+. More than 20 community and technical colleges currently offer the program, said Jon Kerr, state director of basic education for adults.

High School 21+ adds rigorous, high school-level education to basic skills classes already offered. But it also takes life and work experience into account when assessing a student’s education, allowing them to potentially receive high school credit for those experiences.

That flexibility is what made the program appeal to Tickle.

The Spanaway mother worked full time at a veterinary office for seven years. She started in a job filing charts and worked her way up, but said there was “only so far I could go.”

She previously enrolled in a general education development (GED) course at a different school, but found the classes impractical for her academic goals.

“I just wanted my diploma so I could go to college,” Tickle said.

After meeting with an adviser at Pierce College, she was surprised to learn she had enough credits to graduate and didn’t need to take the high school level courses.

“The last 10 years I had been walking around with all the credits and just didn’t happen to have my diploma,” she said.

Tickle, who’s now going to school full time, plans to get her associates degree and transfer to a four-year school. She would like to work with disabled children in the field of art therapy.

To help students realize they can be successful in college, Pierce requires them to enroll in college-level courses in the final quarter of the diploma program. They earn college credit while completing high school diploma requirements.

“They don’t often see themselves as being successful in college because they dropped out of high school,” said Lori Griffin, Pierce College’s director of transitional education. “What we’re doing is seamlessly transitioning them into college so they realize ‘I’m just like any other college student.’”

After a year in the program, Gottschalk has adopted that mentality.

“It was hard to get back into it. There were a lot of us that considered saying ‘I’m done,’ ” the Tacoma resident said. “All of us stuck it out.”

Gottschalk hopes to complete the 21+ program soon. He’s still deciding what field he wants to enter, but said he’ll get his associates degree or a certificate from a technical college after receiving his diploma.

The camaraderie of fellow students and the support of faculty are what kept him from quitting.

He has kept his job building and taking down concert stages, and fitting work around school has been hard, Gottschalk said. But seeing his peers graduate is enough to motivate him to finish.

“That’s a really good feeling,” he said.

Brynn Grimley: 253-597-8467, @bgrimley

Basic Education for Adults

To learn more about Pierce College’s programs for adults, contact:

▪ Pierce College Fort Steilacoom: 253-964-6657

▪ Pierce College Puyallup: 253-840-8455

▪ Online: