Tuesday, July 7, 2009

An Opportunity Agenda?

Over the past five years I've had the privilege of working with Rep. Phyllis Kenney and Speaker Frank Chopp on a program known as Opportunity Grants.

Currently, the program is a pilot project that is serving nearly 4,000 students at community and technical colleges throughout Washington. The program has had a student retention rate of over 80% exceeding that of all other programs.

In this blog, I want to layout the overall vision of the program to share the initial plan in the hopes of jump starting thinking on how to move forward from here.

The original legislation funded two studies to identify the barriers to enrollment and completion in professional and technical education programs. Researchers interviewed financial aid officers, Work Source counselors and students

The research was pretty clear. The number one barrier was lack of financial aid. Number two was the lack of career coaching on college campuses. Students were unable to navigate the college system starting with figuring out the financial aid system, getting help with their studies and getting information on how to find a sequence of courses that would lead to a real job. The third barrier was a lack of support services.

In 2006, legislation was passed that provided $23 million in funding for Opportunity Grants. The grant is sort of a hybrid of some promising low income and TANF programs designed for low income students and Hope Grants in Georgia.

The original legislation had three components:

1. A basic grant was provided to cover tuition, books, tools and fees. The bill recognized that the costs of books, fees and tools most often exceeded tuition expenses. The idea was that the students could then use their Pell Grant for living expenses.

2.. An FTE enhancement for each student that went to the college to provide for career coaching and support services. Higher Education funding in Washington state assumes that the highest cost education is at research universities and the lowest cost at community colleges. The problem with that formula being that low income working adults face the biggest barriers to completion and the cost of effectively serving those students is not recognized in the funding formula. The Opportunity Grant provided an additional funding for each FTE in the program to cover coaching, counseling and support services.

3. The bill created Opportunity Partnerships that linked students receiving grants would link up with employers or apprenticeship councils that would provide internships, work-study or apprenticeships for participating students. This section of the bill was not funded and thus vetoed by the Governor in 2007. However, in 2009, Rep. Tim Probst sponsored HB 1365 that put the program in stautute.

As originally drafted, the bill was designed to be phased in from a pilot to a universal program. While taken out of the bill the bill that passed it had a life of its own in during the Governor's Washington Learns programs as a universal 13th year.

The program offers a funding model for much of the new thinking we are seeing at the state and national level. If you add two more components to the program you could have a comprehensive model.

The first addition would be to link the program to changes in curriculum, instruction and delivery of programs that embeds development education within professional and technical programs. Many students are unprepared for college level work but are unable to sustain the long period of time to complete developmental programs. Linking the two creates a career pathway that could be more effective.

The second would be to tightly link the grants to the needs of business. In 2002, we funded a study that interviewed businesses in each industry and region of the state on what colleges could do to more effectively meet the needs of business. Business leaders indicated that what they needed were college instructors who knew their industry. This research led to the The Center of Excellence program at the state community college board. The role of each cente was to identify for each major industry in every region of the state curriculum and instruction that is designed to meet the needs of industry.

Are we on the right track?

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