In Pierce County, 24% of adults hold a bachelor’s degree. Many local high school students don’t grow up thinking about college as a viable or attainable option. 
“If you’re just telling people to go to college, you’re missing a step,” says UW Tacoma Associate Vice Chancellor and Chief Admissions Officer Karl Smith.
Entering its third year, UW Tacoma’s Pathways to Promise program aims to bridge that gap between hearing about college and considering it for students in the South Sound. Pathways to Promise is UW Tacoma’s expanding network of partnerships aimed at creating college readiness and a college-going culture among the region’s teens, developed as part of the university’s urban-serving mission.
In 2014, the program grew from two partnerships with Tacoma Public Schools and Puyallup School District (which started in 2013) to include partnerships with Federal Way School District (begun in spring of 2014) and Franklin Pierce and Bethel School Districts (begun in autumn 2014). Other partnerships are being explored for 2015.
And as the program expands, it is showing results.
What is Pathways to Promise?
Pathways to Promise works to create a college-going culture in local schools and organizations – not focused just on UW Tacoma, but considering any post-secondary education – and to develop college readiness in these students.
In return, it gives students in partner districts and organizations the opportunity to enter UW Tacoma by providing transparent admissions criteria, making the college application process less opaque. Students in partner districts that meet the minimum course requirements (CADRs, or College Academic Distribution Requirements), have a GPA of 2.7 or higher, score 480 or higher on each section of the SAT or 21 or higher on the ACT, submit a complete application including a well-written personal statement, and enroll at UW Tacoma immediately following their senior year will have assured admission to a high-quality UW Tacoma education.
“The threshold is a signal of preparation,” Smith says of these criteria. It’s there “to make sure that students have that opportunity and that they’re prepared for that opportunity.”
Creating this culture in schools does not mean that every student is pushed to go to college. The program aims to prompt students to think seriously about their futures and have the skills for either college or a career.
“Pathways to Promise is also about helping students make informed decisions,” says Amanda Bruner, UW Tacoma’s director of student transition programs. “We want students to understand the landscape of choices that are available to them.”
What does Pathways to Promise look like in practice, going into its third year?
UW Tacoma and its partners have found that it looks a little different in each school. Each high school is assigned a specific UW Tacoma admissions representative who develops programs tailored to the school’s needs. At some schools, that might be a cultural night; at others, it could be workshops for ninth and tenth grade students about the college application process.
“One thing the partnership allows us to do is develop closer relationships with the counselors and career centers,” says Bruner. UW Tacoma representatives “really get to know the culture of each building.”
In all partner districts, UW Tacoma provides planning tools, like checklists and step-by-step guides to applying for college. Advisors put on workshops for college applications and writing the college essay (no easy task for any high school student). This year, UW Tacoma has added an outreach specialist who focuses on getting middle school students ready and excited for college, to plant the seed “that college is an option or a dream,” says Smith.
Pathways to Promise also brings students from partner districts for special visits to the UW Tacoma campus, giving them a “day in the life of a college student,” Smith says, as they sit in on classes, talk with current students and tour the campus.
The program also hosts celebrations at partner schools for students admitted to UW Tacoma. Last March, Governor Jay Inslee visited Stadium High School as part of the festivities.
These new partnerships have posed their own unique hurdles. Franklin Pierce and Bethel School Districts encompass many students who live in rural areas. “We’re a very urban campus, but we’re really close to rural areas,” points out Bruner. This makes visits to UW Tacoma more difficult for these students, so it is more important that UW Tacoma representatives are able to meet the students where they are, visiting high schools often.
As the program rounds the corner on three years, its results are becoming more apparent.
Pathways to Promise uses a rubric to measure college-going culture in partner school districts. “We’re going to be able to measure how elements of college going culture are shifting over time,” says Bruner. At the same time, the team is also looking qualitatively at how UW Tacoma can contribute to capacity in its partners.
Since the program began, UW Tacoma has seen what Smith calls a “significant increase” in the number of applications from Tacoma Public Schools and Puyallup School District, going from a total of 191 applicants before the partnerships began to 280 applicants in 2014.
Other UW Tacoma programs work to bolster the college-going culture fostered in local schools. UW Tacoma currently works with the Boys & Girls Clubs on the Great Futures Scholars program and the Math Science Leadership program, “which are very much about forming college going culture,” Bruner says. Additionally, UW Tacoma brought 130 participants in the Boys & Girls Clubs’ teen programs to UW Tacoma for a “Campus Takeover” last August
. The two organizations are looking into a possible Pathways to Promise partnership in 2015 as an extension of this work.
2015 and Beyond
UW Tacoma staff is optimistic about Pathways to Promise’s future expansion and continued success.
“We have the opportunity to have a positive impact on the community by making pathways much clearer for students and families,” says Bruner. “This program has the potential to be really transformative.”