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Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

November 18, 2015

UW Tacoma and its Community Pave Pathways to Promise

UW Tacoma is addressing structural discrimination by building a college-going-culture with community partners

Washington Governor Jay Inslee visits Tacoma’s Stadium High School in 2014 to congratulate students admitted to UW Tacoma at a Pathways to Promise celebration. Pathways to Promise is a college-going-culture-building network of programs sponsored by UW Tacoma. Photo: Cody Char.

What does it mean to “create a college-going culture” in a community struggling with high student dropout rates? Recognizing the effects of oppressive barriers such as structural discrimination and the cycle of poverty, among other factors, UW Tacoma is fighting to make educational equity a reality for its community.

Dr. Cedric Howard, vice chancellor for Student and Enrollment Services, and his colleagues are working to make UW Tacoma a “catalyst and spark to revitalize education in this community and change the mental model of what it means to be a student.”

Effecting cultural change takes time — time dedicated to building trust and approaching issues from multiple angles. Programs and partnerships between individual faculty members, classes or school programs have existed for years and laid a foundation in the community for broader, institutional efforts that form the new Pathways to Promise network of programs.

Addressing community needs to increase college access

For underrepresented minorities, first-generation students, young adults who joined the military right out of high school, and even working adults with a few community college credits, the path to a bachelor’s degree can seem full of barriers. In fact, when the UW Tacoma campus was established in 1990, the Tacoma community had struggled for decades with a high dropout rate in its schools and a low percentage of students pursing higher education — only 18% of Pierce County residents held a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Determined to change those statistics and to live up to its public mission, UW Tacoma focused on listening to the needs of its community and finding solutions through creative programs and partnerships. “UW Tacoma has never had the ‘town and gown’ split,” says Sharon Parker, assistant chancellor for equity and diversity.

Creating a network of outreach serving distinct populations

Through Pathways to Promise, UW Tacoma is taking a holistic, community-centered approach to addressing issues of structural and institutional racism that impact college access and success. From recruitment to student engagement, faculty and administrators examine policies and practices for a pipeline of prospective students from K-12, community colleges, local organizations and the military.

It is the only program of its kind in the state to formalize a link between a four-year institution and public schools; Pathways to Promise includes partnerships with five area school districts, including Tacoma Public Schools. In a recent article in the News Tribune, Superintendent Carla Santorno praised UW Tacoma for bringing “direct services to our kids. I’ve worked with a lot of universities from an urban school setting. It’s one of the most rich partnerships that I’ve been a part of.”

Pathways to Promise applies multiple tactics to improve educational access and success

  • Close partnerships facilitate creative solutions to teach prospective students skills for goal-setting and navigating complex systems such as admissions and financial aid:
    • Partnerships that guarantee admissions to high school students who meet the criteria foster the idea among students that college can be a realistic goal for the future. “We want to eliminate the idea that college is not attainable,” says Howard.
    • While Tacoma Public School 11th graders took the PSAT and 12th graders took the SAT, UW Tacoma provided college planning curricula for 9th and 10th graders to make sure that all students were involved in college prep.
    • The University partners with local high schools and foundations by developing customized curricula to prepare students for writing college and scholarship essays.
    • Career Advisers in the Veterans Support Office help service men and women plan for their education in several ways. At Joint Base Lewis-McChord, they administer a career assessment 18 months before personnel are scheduled for discharge.
    • The Duel Enrollment program at Tacoma Community College brings together a cohort of students to meet regularly with a UW Tacoma academic adviser so they can effectively plan ahead for a smooth transition.
  • Relationships with prospective students’ families create community trust, raise expectations: UW Tacoma admissions advisers develop programming specific to the needs of local middle and high schools. They get to know students and answer questions from their families. “If parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles think this is a good place, they’ll encourage their kids to go,” says Parker.
  • Bringing students to campus reduces anxiety, increasing a sense of belonging: For students who never envisioned college as a part of their future, a campus visit can go a long way toward picturing themselves as college students. Hosting programs on campuses helps prospective students meet staff, get to know campus and see what college life is like. They realize they can belong, reducing the risk they will experience imposter syndrome, a situation where students might feel like a fraud and prevent themselves from being successful.
  • Creating a seamless experience aids retention: “As little hand-off as possible,” is how Howard describes his plan for the experience of new students, which is especially critical for first-generation students. For admitted students, UW Tacoma looks for ways to ease the tough transitions that can often get in the way of student success and make them more likely to leave. The student orientation leaders transition into peer mentors for all new University students. High-impact practices such as the experiential learning that happens through peer mentorship provide dual benefits of increasing retention for both mentors and mentees, results that are especially pronounced for underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students.
  • A cycle of service teaches best practices, improves retention and supports a college-going culture: For example, the Great Futures Fund partnership with the Boys and Girls Club of South Puget Sound helps participants plan for their futures. UW Tacoma students mentor Club members, helping with school work and applying for college. If Club members are admitted to UW Tacoma, the Great Futures Fund provides a one-year scholarship. After their first year in college, the students then have paid service internships at Boys and Girls Clubs where they, in turn, work with younger students.

The Math-Science-Leadership Program brings middle and high school students to campus for a free three-week summer program where they conduct research in a lab at the Center for Urban Waters in Tacoma. Photo: Shoshana Glickman.

Building a college-going culture

Many factors are involved in real and lasting culture change, and while the University’s efforts are part of a larger community endeavor, the results are undeniable. At Lincoln High School in Tacoma, less than 50 percent of the class of 2010 graduated. In 2014, nearly 80 percent of seniors graduated. Other schools have seen similar results. By listening to the needs of its partners, working side-by-side to help K-12 students, veterans, first-generation, underrepresented minorities and others see themselves as college students, and bringing the expertise and knowledge of the UW to the issues at hand, UW Tacoma’s investment in its community is paying off. Together with its community, UW Tacoma is providing meaningful access to education, the cornerstone for creating a more equitable society.