How 93,000 more Washington students can thrive after high school

Students in a truck training program at Bates Technical College in Tacoma, (from left) Ronald Foster, Clayton Foster, Vicki Arnold, and Skipper Kuzior, learn about fuel injectors during a lecture on diesel engines.
Students in a truck training program at Bates Technical College in Tacoma, (from left) Ronald Foster, Clayton Foster, Vicki Arnold, and Skipper Kuzior, learn about fuel injectors during a lecture on diesel engines. News Tribune file photo, 2009

Pierce County has a thriving economy and a vibrant culture that make our region an attractive place to live.

Tens of thousands of residents work in health care, manufacturing, transportation and construction. We also have a growing information technology sector and an ongoing need for high-quality teachers.

To be ready for these jobs, our high school students and interested adults will need to continue their education after high school.

About two-thirds of family-wage jobs in Washington in coming years will by filled with workers who have a credential beyond a high school diploma, such as a degree, apprenticeship or certificate in a specific industry.

However, according to a new report from Washington STEM and the Tacoma STEAM Network, only about 38 percent of Pierce County students will get such a credential by the time they are 26.

The rate of credential attainment is even worse for students of color – just 24 percent of our Latin students and 23 percent of black students in the class of 2015 will complete education or training after high school.

For students from low-income families, the completion rate is 24 percent.

The health of our regional economy depends on boosting these rates.

Today, a postsecondary credential is the greatest driver of economic mobility and access to family-wage jobs. Studies say it is one of the strongest indicators of lifetime earnings and the best investment against a lifetime of limited options.

As a region – and a state – we must focus on strategies that increase the rate at which students enter programs beyond high school, as well as provide student-centered supports that enable students to complete these programs.

These strategies must focus on closing racial, gender and income opportunity gaps.

In Pierce County, community-based efforts that include the College Success Foundation, the Graduate Tacoma initiative and Degrees of Change are making progress to improve the high school graduation rate and the number of students achieving degrees and certificates.

Increased state support for financial aid, better pathways to high-demand jobs and other investments in postsecondary opportunities will further boost our local successes.

The College Promise Coalition – of which Pacific Lutheran University, Pierce College, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma Community College, and University of Washington Tacoma are members – is working collaboratively across sectors and across the state to implement strategies supporting students who face barriers to entering and completing postsecondary education.

Expanding pathways into postsecondary opportunities will enable more students to pursue credentials. The coalition is working to expand access and reduce financial barriers to programs that enable students to earn college credit in high school, as well as connect learning to career possibilities.

The coalition also supports critical financial aid programs such as the State Need Grant, College Bound, State Work Study and others.

We have made progress. Last year, the Legislature increased funding for the need grant by $18.5 million with a path to full funding over four years.

In his 2019-2021 budget proposal, Gov. Jay Inslee seeks to accelerate toward full and predictable need grant funding, with a proposed new name: Washington College Promise Scholarship.

This support for students is critical; during the 2016-17 school year, about 2,750 Pierce County students — one in four who were eligible — were unable to receive a state need grant.

We urge the Legislature to enact Senate Bill 5393, which would make the Washington College Promise a reality for 93,000 eligible students in our state.

Armen Papyan is president of the Associated Students of University of Washington Tacoma. Steve Smith is a member of the Independent Colleges of Washington and executive director of the Black Education Strategy Roundtable.