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News / Northwest

Program aims to make college acceptance process easier in Washington

By Vanessa Ontiveros, Yakima Herald-Republic
Published: March 10, 2023, 7:27am

YAKIMA — As executive director of career and college readiness for the Yakima School District and a former high school principal, it is Byron Gerard’s job to help teenagers figure out what they want to do after high school. But when the time came to help his own children apply for college, even he found it confusing.

“I’m a high school principal by profession and it was very difficult for us to navigate the college admissions process and understand all of the requirements and expectations and who to talk to and what form to fill out,” he said.

He worried how students and families with fewer resources than his own, who did not have parents in academia or parents who went to college at all, would face it.

In the past two years, Gerard and other educators all over Washington have embarked on a plan to make the college admissions process easier for some students. In fall 2021, the Washington Council of Presidents, which is comprised of presidents from the state’s public colleges, launched a guaranteed admissions program for students in participating school districts who met certain academic criteria.

Now in its second year, the program has expanded, and the five participating colleges and universities have streamlined the admissions requirements. But educators involved said the data collection aspect of the program needs work so schools can better understand its impact.

The program

Through the guaranteed admissions program, seniors from participating high schools in school districts with a 3.0 grade-point average and are on track to graduate have a guaranteed spot at participating colleges.

Central Washington University, Eastern Washington University, Western Washington University, Washington State University and Evergreen State College all participate. Across Washington, 66 public school districts are part of the program, including eight districts in Yakima County.

The program is run by the Washington Council of Presidents, which included presidents from the state’s six public four-year colleges and universities.

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Julie Garver, the council’s director of policy and academic affairs, said the initiative was born out of concern over Washington’s rate of college participation. The state ranks 48th when it comes to participation in public four-year college for students right out of high school, Garver said.

The council wanted to let students know that college in the state is affordable and attainable, so it worked with K-12 educators to develop the program, Garver said.

The 2021-22 school year served as a pilot year for the program. Initially the council thought maybe 10 school districts would be interested. Instead, 60 districts agreed to participate.

“That made us realize that we were definitely on to something here,” Garver said.

Zillah School District was among the participants. Zillah High School Principal Jeff Charbonneau is a member of the Washington Student Achievement Council, which partners with higher education institutions in the state. He said WSAC has been discussing the possibility of a such a program for years and worked with the college presidents to make it a reality.

Removing barriers

The main goal of the program is to remove barriers in the college admissions process, educators said.

Chiefly, it removes an element of uncertainty from the process, Gerard said. Students in their senior year of high school may be intimidated by the prospect of spending many hours filling out applications, writing essays and taking tests just to possibly be rejected.

This program means some students no longer have to go through that.

“If they have been a good student in high school and prove that they are a good learner with a 3.0 cumulative GPA and taken qualifying classes that need to college readiness requirements, then they get an automatic letter from these partner universities,” he said. “And the letter basically … says if you apply, you’ll be accepted.”

From there, students can work with each college to decide which school is the best fit for them, Garver said.

Gerard and Charbonneau stressed that just because a student does not meet the requirements for guaranteed admission, that does not mean they cannot go to college. Those students can still apply through traditional means.

Lacking data

Another goal of the program is to gather data on students’ post high school experiences, though schools faced some hurdles in data collection during the pilot year.

To participate, districts must agree to share some student data with the five participating colleges and universities, Garver said. However, during its pilot year, not all schools kept equivalent data, something the program is hoping to amend. It also did not gather demographic data, making it difficult to track whether the program is reaching students who have been traditionally underrepresented at colleges.

Graver said with the data it had, the council identified 200 students statewide who likely would not have gone to college without the program. These were students who had not been reached out to by universities in any way other than the guaranteed admissions program.

High schools are also working on better ways of tracking students as they move through the education system. Once they leave the district, schools generally lose touch with students, Gerard said.

“Something we continuously talk about is how to follow up with students,” he said.