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2012 September 3 - 12:00 am

POV: Student Success Evolves from Expectation to Responsibility

A college education is an expensive venture. Students can face a $50,000 annual bill at an elite college or something more reasonable, like about $3,000 a year at a community college. But reasonable is a relative term. The working single mother with several children may find each and every dollar to be extremely precious. The young adult working in an entry-level job while supporting himself finds even the most inexpensive educational experience a financial struggle. Many families simply see higher education as financially out of reach.

Washington State Community College, in Marietta, Ohio, offers a very high-quality educational experience at a reasonable cost. But even with our modest costs, nearly 70 percent of the student body utilizes scholarships, financial aid and student loans to pay for their educations. The financial aid assists in providing and expanding access. What can be disheartening is the reality that many students complete even their WSCC education in serious debt, resulting in an intractable cycle of loan obligation. If the students don’t complete, they are left with heavy debt and no credential.

The problem is so pervasive that a March report of the Federal Reserve indicates that nationwide, the outstanding student loan debt has now passed $800 billion, exceeding the debt that Americans owe on credit cards. For the 2011-12 federal financial aid award year, Washington State students alone have taken out over $5.1 million dollars in student loans.

Many critics point to increasing tuition rates as the impetus for student loan debt, but Washington State has raised tuition less than 5 percent over the past five years. Our current annual rate is an affordable $133 per credit hour, meaning that a student carrying a load of 12 credit hours would pay less than $1,600 in tuition per semester, under $3,200 a year.

Extensive institutional research suggests that our students are taking out students loans to support not just their educational expenses, but also to pay their living expenses. Federal financial aid laws allow students to take out loans to cover costs outside of tuition and books, which include housing, transportation, and child care expenses. In order to make the pursuit of a college degree a viable prospect, more and more students are now dependent on these student loans to support themselves and their families while they work towards the completion of their educational goals.

Beginning this summer, though, students began facing new restrictions on their access to federal student aid monies. Congress has already acted to reduce lifetime eligibility amounts of the Pell Grant, a need-based grant for low income students. Beginning with the 2012-13 class, students will be limited to six years (as opposed to the current eight years) of full- time Pell grant eligibility without the luxury of being grandfathered. Students who rely on student loans will be forced to advance toward their educational goals more quickly, and within six months of degree completion or leaving school, face mandatory loan repayments. Students who fail to complete their degrees are held to the same repayment standards.

Already, America is witnessing the effects of high student loan debt in an economy where job placement is often slow: more and more students are defaulting on student loans which can’t be discharged in bankruptcy court. In addition, educational institutions are being held accountable for the default rates of their students. They must redirect limited financial and human resources to address this mounting crisis.

Community colleges across the country are experiencing the same challenges as Washington State. The open enrollment policies embraced nationwide by community colleges promote access to nearly anyone who desires education and training opportunities beyond the high school level. But entry into the higher education arena can become a prologue to a fruitless investment of time and resources if students do not complete their educational goals and earn a credential.

Knowing this, we at Washington State are re-adjusting our focus from one of primarily access to one that places equal weight on success. In March of this year, student success was defined, and every employee and member of our Board of Trustees signed a commitment to enhancing student success. With the initiation of that pledge, Washington State faculty, staff, and administrators have aggressively worked to identify and examine barriers faced by students and amend policies and practices to align with our success focus.

In conjunction with the college’s transition from quarters to semesters this fall, we will begin implementing measures that we hope will lead to greater completion rates for our students. In the upcoming academic year, students can expect to meet more frequently with academic advisors, develop individual academic plans, and participate in financial literacy workshops. By honing in on student success, we will simultaneously focus on the issue of mounting student loan debt. We believe holistic advising and financial literacy education will help advance degree completion and thereby reduce the total amount of student loans needed to support educational pursuits.

At Washington State Community College, we are working to turn our aspirations for student success into actionable plans. As the need to increase the number of adults earning college degrees becomes more imperative, WSCC must focus resources on student performance goals. We believe we are turning in the right direction. But we must stay the course. Student success is not merely an expectation. Along with access, it is a responsibility.

It’s YOUR TURN:  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q:  What has your college done to embed student success in campus culture?
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