Monday, August 24, 2009

Lost in the maze of higher education

A few years ago I sat in a seminar room discussion with a dozen or community college workforce deans and financial aid officers along side of a group of executive and legislative higher ed staffers. The financial aid officers described how they were tearing their hair out trying to figure out how to fit students into a financial aid puzzle that would work for them. They felt the programs were confusing and complicated. The staffers responded that it really wasn't a problem. For them, the financial aid folks just didn't know how to do their jobs.

Every two years the state Workforce Education and Training and Coordination Board does a participant survey of students at Washington's Community and Technical Colleges. Not surprisingly, students were least satisfied with the advice they received on selecting programs (interestingly enough, the time and location of the classes was not nearly as difficult a problem).
In the same survey, the services students felt what they were truly missing were financial aid, job search assistance and career counseling. If my memory serves me correctly, college and career counseling has shown up as the top concern in these surveys for at least the last decade.

As part of the initial design of the Oopportunity Grant Program, the legislature asked the Workforce Board to survey financial aid officers, WorkSource Staff and students as to the main barriers to enrollment and retention of students in workforce programs. Overwhelmingly, the major barrier identified was financial aid followed by information on career possibilities and advise on how to navigate the college system.

Until recently, little attention was paid to this problem. In 2006, through the Opportunity Grant program, students receiving the grant also carried with them an FTE allotment to cover the costs of counseling and career placement as well as other support services. Student retention more than doubled during the first year of the program. More recently, the Gates Foundation, SkillUp (A Seattle Workforce funding collaborative) and even the President's Council of Economic Advisers have begun to focus their thinking on dealing with this issue.

The President's advisers are looking at focusing Federal Job Service Centers (WorkSource in Washington) and federal Workforce Investment Act programs (Workforce Development Councils in Washington) more on long term career coaching and less on short term job placement.

The whole notion of career pathways is beginning to take root at the Foundation, Federal and Community College level. This is not only an effective model for student success but in the end will save time and money as students are less likely to waste time in classes that don't give them what they need. Maybe, just maybe, the people who run the state's welfare program, TANF, will be paying attention as well.

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