For almost everyone who enrolls, college is a pit stop on the path to a career. For Jan Yoshiwara, who will soon retire as executive director of the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges – college been the career.
In the 1970s, Yoshiwara was officially enrolled as a medical student at the University of California, Davis. But as a student of the civil rights movement, she changed her mind about medical school and left school instead in an effort to ensure that college was within reach of students on the fringes. After more than four decades of work in higher education, most of them have held various positions in the school board, this vocation has not changed.
“Our state needs to do a better job of reaching low-income students to get them into college,” said Yoshiwara, who will leave his post at the end of July.
During his tenure, Washington became one of the first states in the nation to offer applied bachelor’s degrees – which allow people with a 2-year technical degree to complete a bachelor’s degree at a community or technical college. Colleges also began receiving state funding based on students’ progress toward their degrees as well as their enrollment.
She leaves the system at a difficult time. Higher education, and community colleges in particular, have seen an unprecedented drop in enrollment due to the pandemic. In some ways, she says, the landscape has remained the same for decades, including the direct college education rate for high school graduates of around 60%. In 2020, Yoshiwara set an ambitious goal of doubling the graduation rate in two-year colleges by 2030. In his own words, the state is making good progress, but “we’re still not there.” not there yet”.
Looking back on her career over the past month, Yoshiwara says there is much to be proud of.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How were you as a student?
I was in high school when student activism was very high. There were protests at San Francisco State University, which is 15, 20 miles from where I grew up. I was very influenced by that… I had a humanities teacher in high school who was very progressive and he taught us in real time what was going on… My mother was another factor. She was a housewife and very active in the PTA… She wanted to go to the first Asian American forum at the University of California at Berkeley. But she was in her forties and she was afraid to go alone, and she begged me to come with her.
When I went to college, I was trying to figure out how to be a student activist and get a bachelor’s degree at the same time. It was almost like I had a split personality when I was an undergrad because premedicine is a really tough major and you don’t make it unless you put all your effort into your coursework. I’m not trying to disparage people who go to medical school or who have been premeditated, but the penchant of the people I was in class with was different from the penchant of the people I worked with to organize rallies and sit-ins.
What made you want to work in higher education?
I was fortunate enough to be selected to be the student representative on the admissions committee for the educational opportunities program. [at UC Davis]. This committee was… in the process of deciding what would be the alternative admission requirements for students who were not regularly eligible. I realized what we were doing was establishing a policy… who was going to decide who was going to go to college and who was not. And that this decision would have an impact on prices for years to come. It was quite a startling realization…that I could work in higher education in a field that could influence access to education for underrepresented students and low-income students. I finished my bachelor’s degree and started looking for a graduate program in higher education administration. And I found a 12 month program at Western Washington University.
… I grew up middle class and with racism because of my Japanese heritage. My parents raised me to go to college and I realized that most people didn’t have that opportunity. So I wanted to work in a field where social and economic mobility could occur.
You’ve spent your entire career working at the community college level. Why?
… You don’t have to have a special program to reach students of color, underrepresented students, low-income students, because that’s the goal of the whole community or the technical college. So I decided that because this was… the field I wanted to work in, that I should go to community college. So that’s what I did. My first job was Director of Minority Affairs at Pierce College in 1978.
Do you feel like the issues you were fighting for back then are different now?
A little, but not really. I tried to help Pierce College diversify among faculty…I became a member of the Academic Termination Policy Committee because I knew students were struggling academically and with their financial aid. [which is sometimes tied to academic performance] …These questions about student support and financial support are always relevant.
… And so one of the initiatives that my colleagues on the state board worked very hard on was guided pathways. And we were fortunate to get funding from College Spark Washington, which is a local foundation, to pilot guided journeys with 10 of our colleges. And they made a significant eight-year commitment. We were able to demonstrate some success in the Legislative Assembly and make it a state appropriation so that all of our colleges would get money to implement the guided pathways.
What are your thoughts on how the pandemic has hit community college enrollment? What were the lessons learned?
The majority of students we serve in the community technical college sector are in part-time or full-time jobs, and [the pandemic] had a much greater effect on us than on the university sectors. We have to figure out how to address the other things that are going on in people’s lives that are keeping them from going to college or causing them to put off…until their kids go back to school or until they have daycare. It made us realize the larger role we have in helping people who want to go to college and get college degrees to get jobs that require those degrees and skills, to think a bit more broadly about how we support students.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced and are still facing?
… Resources. We’ve made some good gains recently… [But] community colleges rely very heavily on the state for operating funds and capital construction. We don’t have the power to tax like school districts.
… The problem with declining enrollment – it’s sort of one of the elephants in the room. This means that people in our state who seek social and economic mobility through a college degree — that fewer people are able to take advantage of this opportunity. The community and technical college sector is the primary supplier of front-line workers to employers across the state. If we have fewer people in these programs, in our technical programs, that means there are fewer newly trained technical workers entering the economy.
What advice would you give to your successor?
…To continue the coalitions we’ve built with business and unions, because that’s how we’ll get further faster – if we work together collectively. We have now established this as an expectation in the college system. I don’t think it will be difficult for our successor to continue to do this good job.