Setting an Encouraging Course

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A college-going culture-building partnership with five local school districts connects youth to their bright futures.

Student voices

Angelique Savorn
Lukas Brown
Bedanys Rivera-Luna

Read what some students have to say about their decision to go to college. Bedanys Rivera-Luna at Tacoma's Lincoln High School, Lukas Brown at Federal Way's Todd Beamer High School, and Angelique Savorn, current UW Tacoma student, share their excitement and their hopes. MORE...

Update: The Washington Association of School Administrators will recognize the Pathways to Promise program with a 2016 Community Award at its Region 111 annual breakfast on April 29.

A group of 12th-graders gathers in the spectacularly restored auditorium at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School. A golden light suffuses the air and dances in the eyes of the attentive students.

Off to the side stands a giant, furry dog—or, rather, Dawg. It’s Hendrix, UW Tacoma’s mascot-sibling of Harry the Husky.

Nearby stand the principal, school board members, and even the mayor of Tacoma.

Everyone is there to celebrate a momentous accomplishment in the lives of the students: their admission to college.

As each student’s name is called out, the young man or woman steps forward to receive an honorary certificate congratulating the student and emblazoned with a gold foil seal of the University of Washington. The room reverberates with cheers, shouts and whistles as the student passes through a gauntlet of hand-shaking and poses for a photo with Hendrix.

In the lower right corner of the honorary certificate is a logo that reads “Pathways to Promise.” That logo is the visual indicator of a commitment UW Tacoma shares with school districts and community organizations throughout the greater Tacoma region—a commitment to doing what it takes to create a clear path to the promise of higher education.

Promising a Pathway

Seniors from Tacoma's Lincoln High School celebrate admission to UW Tacoma with Hendrix the Husky.Simply put, Pathways to Promise is about helping K-12 students and their families see higher education as a natural next step after graduation from high school.

One part is making it really clear what is required to get accepted to UW Tacoma. Another is providing help with the process of applying to and enrolling in higher-ed institutions and securing financial aid. A third part is celebrating the milestones along the education journey, like applying to college and getting accepted.

That short description glosses over a lot of activity: workshops, mentoring, counseling, networking, data collection and sharing, and everything that goes into building a culture of college-going.

And it begs the question – why is it even necessary?

Meeting a Challenge

In an influential report from 2010, the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University projected that 63 percent of new jobs by 2018 would require “college degrees or other postsecondary preparation.”

“Postsecondary education and training is quickly becoming the only viable path to the American middle class,” said the Georgetown report.

But, the report goes on to say that “the postsecondary education and training system will fall short by 3 million or more postsecondary degrees.” Basically, the report is saying there needs to be more focus on providing postsecondary degrees to workers in order to give those workers access to middle-class career pathways.

Locally the story is no different. More and more jobs in the Puget Sound region are requiring postsecondary credentials, and the salary gap between those jobs and jobs available to those with just a high school diploma is growing.

“Creating a college-going culture amongst our youth is good for our city as a whole, for our economic competitiveness,” says Josh Garcia, deputy superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools, and one of the architects of the Pathways to Promise program.

“We need more students to go on to advanced post-secondary experiences. The Pathways to Promise project is all about exposing kids to those experiences. It’s not just about going to UW Tacoma. But, we felt strongly that if we taught kids how to get in to UW Tacoma, then they could use those skills for any of a variety of post-secondary settings,” said Garcia.

How It Started

In hindsight, it almost seems as if a program like Pathways to Promise was inevitable. Of the constituent parts, a key element was born 25 years ago when UW’s Tacoma campus was founded, evolving into an urban-serving institution with a mission of expanding access to higher education.

An architect of the program is Cedric Howard, who has served since 2007 as UW Tacoma’s Vice Chancellor for Student Enrollment & Services. His passion as an advocate for access to higher education motivated then-Chancellor Debra Friedman to charge him with the development of a college-going culture-building program in the community.

Tacoma Public Schools Superintendent Carla Santorno, center, attends Pathways to Promise celebration at Stadium High School in 2015, with Deputy Superintendent Josh Garcia, upper left, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, upper right.The logical first partner was Tacoma Public Schools, Washington’s third-largest school district. With dynamic new leadership in Superintendent Carla Santorno and Deputy Superintendent Garcia, the district was making great progress raising the academic achievement and graduation rates of its students.

The players literally gathered around a table and brainstormed until the outlines of the program emerged: clear admissions criteria; student mentoring and counseling leading to and through the application process; and celebration of milestones.

In 2012, UW Tacoma and Tacoma Public Schools signed a memorandum of understanding outlining the commitment each was making to the program.

“It really was a process to demystify and articulate the resources available to college-eligible and college-ready students, in a fashion that would resonate with those students and their families,” says Garcia.

How It Works

Since those early days in 2012, Pathways to Promise has grown and evolved.

The program now covers five school districts in the greater Tacoma region. In addition to Tacoma Public Schools, memoranda have been signed with the districts in Federal Way, Puyallup, Bethel and Franklin-Pierce.

Clear Admissions Criteria

Clearly stated criteria for admission to UW Tacoma signals to high school students not only the path to UW Tacoma, but gives them a way to think about how admission to any higher-education institution works.

The criteria for admission to UW Tacoma are:

  • Meet college-track course requirements (also known as 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.

Building Relationships

For its part, UW Tacoma is at one or two events per month in each high school that is part of the Pathways to Promise program: that’s seven in Tacoma, four in Federal Way, four in Puyallup, four in Bethel and two in Franklin-Pierce.

An event might be a workshop for juniors on how to start a college search, or a session for students and parents on how to fill out financial aid forms like the FAFSA and WASFA.

The goal is for students to engage in talk about college and with college students, alumni and staff on a regular basis during their junior and senior years.

“It’s all about providing confidence, providing a peace of mind,” says Megan Beresford, UW Tacoma’s associate director of university recruitment. Beresford says her staff learned very quickly that the program has to be tailored for each high school. “We have to adjust everything we do, not just district-by-district, but building-by-building. And we have to pitch the material at an age-appropriate level. We can’t talk to 10th graders the same way we talk to 12th graders,” said Beresford.

Nurturing a college-going culture isn’t just top-down. As students get comfortable seeing themselves as college-goers, and seeing others like them who have gone on to college, there is a self-reinforcing peer-based resonance. “Word-of-mouth and trust play a huge role amongst the students themselves,” says Beresford. Tapping into and growing that shared ethos is one of the major goals of Pathways to Promise.

Celebrating Milestones

UW Tacoma admissions officer Joseph Franco addresses seniors at a Pathways to Promise celebration in Federal Way's Todd Beamer High School.The third component of Pathways to Promise is creating an environment where students celebrate their accomplishments on the path to higher education together.

Many students admitted to UW Tacoma are first-generation– they are the first ones in their immediate families to attend college. The enthusiasm they share for each other’s accomplishments lays the foundation for the relationships and resilience they can draw on as they enter and progress through higher education.

Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland attended the Pathways to Promise celebration at Lincoln High School this year. She and Hendrix the Husky posed for photos with every one of the 31 students who received certificates recognizing their admission to UW Tacoma. “You have an entire city of adults and people in education who want to see you succeed,” she told them, channeling the Pathways to Promise spirit.


The direct results of Pathways to Promise have been impressive. Looking just at Tacoma Public Schools, the number of students applying to and getting admitted to four-year or two-year colleges or military apprenticeships has gone up. For UW Tacoma specifically, the number of students enrolled has increased from just under 30 in 2011 to almost 80 in 2015.

The spirit of accomplishment and confidence that results from the work of programs like Pathways to Promise has also boosted graduation rates for Tacoma Public Schools, which, in 2015, celebrated the highest rate of graduation since the state started tracking such data—82.6%.

Deputy Superintendent Garcia said, “I think when students see a vision laid out for them, and there’s hope, and support for that vision, they are more likely to be successful in high school. What we’re seeing is, across the city, there are a lot of people invested in the future of our students. I think it’s having a direct impact on their ability to stay in school and be successful.”

You can read about other UW Tacoma programs that support youth education and development:

Written by: 
John Burkhardt / March 21, 2016
Media contact: 

John Burkhardt, UW Tacoma Communications, 253-692-4536 or