In their Own Words: New Report Describes Student Challenges to Staying in College


In their Own Words: New Report Describes Student Challenges to Staying in CollegePage Title

Now available, the Tacoma Completes Student Voice Research Report draws on the experiences of more than 50 students who left college before completing their degree to inform the future of college support systems.

“These students’ stories provide valuable perspective about the complex needs facing many students right now,” says Nalani Linder, Tacoma Completes Director at Degrees of Change.

“Our hope is that this report can spark both insights and movement towards systems-level change to support more college students in their goal to graduate.”

The research report was conducted by local nonprofit Degrees of Change, in close partnership with the Foundation for Tacoma Students, Tacoma Community College (TCC), and the University of Washington Tacoma (UWT). Researchers interviewed 56 students who left TCC or UWT in good standing within the last five years. This partnership is part of the broader initiative Tacoma Completes, which envisions a coordinated community-wide system of supports helping all Tacoma college students persist and graduate. By engaging Tacoma Public Schools (TPS), regional colleges, government agencies, private companies, and community- based organizations, Tacoma Completes aims to significantly increase the number of TPS high school graduates who complete college within six years of enrolling and to eliminate racial and socioeconomic completion gaps.

While quantitative data on degree completion is widely available, far less qualitative research has been done to ask local students why they leave school prior to completing their credential — despite having good academic standing. The collective effort to better understand challenges facing students has the potential to transform, strengthen, and introduce entirely new on- and off-campus supports for Tacoma college-goers. 

“This report offered an important, real look into the lives of our students and highlights many of their challenges, both within and outside of the college,” says TCC President Ivan L. Harrell, II, Ph.D. “It also provided information about how wealth is a predictor of both college attendance and completion.”

“Many of these students shared their experiences about losing financial aid; parents no longer being able to afford college tuition; and how many of them became overwhelmed with bills and full course loads. TCC prides itself as an affordable, accessible higher education institution with supportive resources. However, we know there is still much work to do. We will continue to work with community partners to support our students, from enrollment to completion.”

From the report:

  • The research project engaged 23 former TCC and 33 former UWT students who graduated from a Pierce County high school between 2013 and 2019, attended TCC or UWT for at least two terms, and left the institution in good academic standing prior to earning their degree.
  • Primary reasons for leaving ranged across seven themes: College Fit (Sense of Purpose and Sense of Belonging), Financial and Basic Needs, Family Care and Life Events, Mental Health, Physical Health, Classroom Experience, and College Navigation. 
  • In the spirit of authentically engaging students in the decisions that impact their lives, this report does not provide explicit policy recommendations. Instead, the report is intended to provide a common framework and key questions to guide ongoing policy conversations among students, college staff and community partners.
  • Download the executive summary or full report.

“Many of the issues called out in the report are made worse by the pandemic and could impact our students and alumni for years,” says Bonnie Becker, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Success at UWT.

“This report will significantly support our mission of expanding access to higher education and providing the opportunity for every student to succeed.”

A virtual forum for community will be held Feb. 19, 2021 at 8:30-10 a.m. to share key findings from the report. Click here to register. Community members will have the chance to hear from current college students and social service organizations on the state of accessing and completing a postsecondary education. Community members are also invited to learn more and get involved with work to support college completion in Tacoma by visiting

About Foundation for Tacoma Students & Graduate Tacoma

As a results-based facilitator, convener, and intermediary, the Foundation for Tacoma Students is the backbone nonprofit dedicated to building and strengthening the Graduate Tacoma movement. Established in 2010, Graduate Tacoma is a community-wide movement on a mission to help every child achieve success – from cradle to career. With more than 350 community organizations, institutions, and advocates working in partnership, we are taking shared responsibility to align our goals, data, and resources for the sake of Tacoma youth. 

Press Contacts

Cecilia Garza

Director of Communications Foundation for Tacoma Students

Tamyra Howser

Communications Director Tacoma Community College

Nalani Linder

Tacoma Completes Director Degrees of Change

John Burkhardt

Director of Communications University of Washington Tacoma


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