Colleges work to help adults who have postsecondary experience, but no bachelor’s
The year was 1989, and Randal Houle had just graduated from R.A. Long High School in Longview. He enrolled in Lower Columbia College, but about a year later, dropped out.
“I got really depressed and kind of quit,” said Houle, who now lives in Vancouver.
He gave college another try in the mid-1990s, but he had children at that point, a job, and again, he stopped.
Houle is 48 now, and on track to graduate in May with a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Washington State University Vancouver.
“This is what I should have done all along,” Houle said.
Houle isn’t alone in his stop-and-go experience when it comes to higher education. Data released lastin October by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that 36 million Americans obtained some postsecondary education, but have not completed their degrees. Census data suggests that 27.5 percent of Clark County residents aged 25 or older have some college, but no degree, according to the latest American Community Survey five-year estimates, compared with 23.7 percent statewide. Nationwide, 20.6 percent of adults have some college but no degree.
The result can hit those who drop out of college from two sides: The Social Security Administration shows that workers with bachelor’s degrees can make hundreds of thousands of dollars more over their careers, while those who leave college without a degree often do so owing thousands of dollars in student debt.
And while reaching those would-be students can be an uphill battle for college and universities, those in the field say state-level policy changes and local initiatives could ensure more students are able to return to college — and, like Houle, finally earn their diploma.
What the data shows
Washington has the seventh-largest population of noncompleters, with 1,098,345 Washingtonians reporting some college but no degree, according to the clearinghouse. Rachelle Sharpe, the deputy executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, sees opportunity in those students.
But she said the bachelor’s degree attainment rate is “nowhere where it needs to be.” As a result, “We’re filling our jobs with folks like me, from another state. We’re leaving so many Washingtonians out of our modern workforce,” Sharpe said.
The issue of students with some college but no degree is one of the program’s top priorities.
The achievement council this month will unveil its College and Career Compass, a tool prospective students can use to explore campuses throughout the state. Colleges can create profiles of the programs and benefits they offer to adult learners, such as emergency grants for housing, evening hours for tutoring and advising offices, or clear information about degree programs.
Students can also share their contact information with colleges that have completed those profiles, allowing enrollment advisers to reach out to offer information and support.
“The stronger our retention and student success and adult-learner focus supports are, the less likely we are to have those students return and run into the same issues and have to leave again without completing their goals,” Sharpe said.
Both Clark College and Washington State University Vancouver are participating in the Compass program. During the 2016-2017 school year at Clark College, of the 11,888 degree-seeking students enrolled, 9,329 completed a degree or certificate, transferred to another college or re-enrolled for the following academic year. That means 2,559, or 22 percent, left Clark College without completing a degree.
The data is more difficult to pinpoint at Washington State University Vancouver, but the Office of Institutional Research suggests that of the 216 new full-time freshmen who started in fall of 2013, 62.5 percent, or 135, graduated within six years. Of the 493 students who transferred from another college to WSU Vancouver that year, 370, or 75.1 percent, graduated in six years.
It can be difficult to determine what exactly prompts college students to drop out, and in turn, what might motivate them to return.
There are some consistent threads: the cost of college, for one. According to U.S. Department of Education data, those who withdraw from Clark College do so with median debt of $5,500. Data is not available for Washington State University Vancouver specifically, but students who drop out of the Washington State University system do so with median debt of $8,750.
“If you don’t earn your credential, you’re not in a position to pay off that debt,” Sharpe said.
State legislators approved the Washington College Grant program during the 2019 legislative session, promising to help cover tuition and fees for students from low- and middle-income families. A student from a family of four with a household income of $50,000 a year, for example, would be eligible for full coverage starting in the 2020-2021 school year. The program covers anyone who does not have a degree, including adult learners.
Sharpe said students may also be struggling to balance obtaining a college degree with working full time or supporting their families.
“If you have 100 adult learners you have 100 different stories,” Sharpe said.
William Belden, vice president of student affairs at Clark College, sits on the College and Career Compass steering committee. Belden noted that programs like the Penguin Pantry, a campus food bank specifically for students, and its health clinic, one of the few at Washington community colleges, are small ways the campus can serve all students’ needs. He also pointed to the college’s guided pathways initiative, a nationally recognized education model that explicitly spells out what classes and programs students need to participate in so they can graduate on time.
“The college needs to be student ready,” he said. “Students don’t need to be college ready.”
‘Ecosystem of a city’
Hadass Sheffer, co-founder and president of nonprofit organization The Graduate! Network, said supporting students is not just about colleges, but the entire “ecosystem of a city.” Are policymakers creating programs that support adult learners? Are colleges making campus resources accessible? Are potential employers helping develop training programs?
“There are all these roadblocks to going back,” Sheffer said.
The Graduate! Network launched in Philadelphia to address the issue of noncompleters, and has since opened offices around the country, including Spokane. Sheffer noted that The Graduate! Network disproportionately serves people of color and low-income students, who traditionally face additional barriers to accessing higher education.
“They’re low-income, have family issues, child care issues,” she said. “We’re talking about race, gender, inequity.”
Workforce Southwest Washington CEO Kevin Perkey pointed to work the organization is doing at Next, a center designed to help young people access post-secondary education. Next helps teenagers and young adults complete their high school degree, apply to college and register for apprenticeships. But it also provides a place where people can grab a meal or take a hot shower in an effort to address the broad challenges people face as they prepare to return to school.
Perkey said he frequently hears from the estimated 1,400 young adults the center serves that they face issues with child care, transportation or caring for a sick or aging parent. Increasingly, they’re also hearing from students facing drug addiction or mental health issues creating barriers to post-secondary education.
“We need to find a way to support solutions,” Perkey said. “We don’t want them to be lost. We don’t want to lose a generation. We want to be able to invest and grow our own here.”
‘Benefits outweigh the costs’
Houle, the WSU Vancouver student, jokes that he’s on the “30-year-plan.”
“Whenever I was in advising for classes I’d say ‘I want to make sure I graduate on time,’ ” he said. “These last few months I’ve started adding, ‘Whatever that means.’ ”
Houle spent decades working in commissioned sales and commercial debt collection. He struggled, however, to earn promotions and raises, seeing advancement go to people with college degrees.
“If you think school is expensive, try doing life without it,” he said.
In the meantime, Houle was writing short stories and novels in his spare time. Writing professionally was a career he’d considered, but before he did that, he wanted to “make a clean break from that treadmill of commissioned sales.” In 2017, he went to Clark College to pencil out what a transfer degree might look like, and then in turn, a bachelor’s degree.
“I had to see the road first before I could see the finish line,” he said.
Ironically, Houle’s college career won’t end with his upcoming graduation.
Houle recently applied to graduate school. He hopes, someday, to become a college professor.