Been there. Done that.

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Clark alumni know what it takes to complete programs and they want to help today’s students


That’s the percentage of students at Clark College that currently complete their degrees or certificates each year before moving on with their lives.

If that figure seems low, it is—and it’s one of the reasons why Clark College is going through major changes in its academic programs.

The statistic does not take into account the 25 percent of Clark students who go on to four-year institutions. However, the current graduation rate of 26 percent is unacceptable to college leaders because it doesn’t accurately reflect the quality of programs and faculty at Clark College.

Clark isn’t unusual in this regard. Many community colleges across the country are earnestly trying to find ways to help students stay in school and finish their programs, especially in light of a prosperous economy and strong job market.

As higher education institutions everywhere struggle with this dilemma, they are turning to one of their largest, and perhaps most underutilized, resources available to them: their alumni.

“There is an appropriate and potentially powerful role for us to play,” said Jay Gilberg ’78, president of Clark’s alumni board. Gilberg believes the experience he has gained as a successful financial planner in Vancouver can help students who also want to establish prosperous and satisfying careers.

As part of their volunteer leadership roles, Gilberg and other members of the alumni board are dedicating their support to Guided Pathways, Clark College’s academic and support services overhaul aimed at improving completion rates for students.

Daniel Brown and Michael-Jaeger

Left to right, Michael Jaeger ’87 and Clark student Daniel Brown discuss a coding issue in one of the STEM classrooms.

In short, Pathways is an educational approach embracing the philosophy that students are more successful when their fundamental needs are being met. This includes identifying students’ educational interests and their strengths and weaknesses in order to get them on a specific academic pathway or program. Pathways also provides wrap-around services to help them stay in school. Services such as academic advising and tutoring, expert counseling in financial support, and effective career mentoring and job search preparedness are all part of a complete package.

“We have to do a better job of addressing the needs of our unique students in an ever-changing world,” said President Robert K. Knight at his State of the College address in January 2018. Among other things, Knight is referring to the fact that more than 70 percent of Clark students are first-generation college students. In other words, no one in their immediate family attended college.

Changing outcomes

Over the last eight years, Clark College experienced a 10 percent increase in its population of students from communities of color. Furthermore, approximately 40 percent—2 in 5 students—come from households that are at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level. Another 1 in 25 identify as living with a disability. Among first-term students, 80 percent identify with one or more systemically non-dominant groups.

“For years we expected students to be ready for college. Because of our complex student body, we now realize we must reverse this approach,” said Knight during the college address. “Now, Clark needs to be ready for our students.”

Knight and other Clark College leaders are determined to change student outcomes and believe Guided Pathways is the way forward. Graduation rates at a number of higher education institutions across the country that implemented Guided Pathways have soared from about 25 percent to nearly 50 percent in a few years, according to experts in the movement. Clark College leaders believe if it can work in other places, it can work in Vancouver.

According to numerous economic studies, staying in school and completing a degree is beneficial from a long-term financial perspective. Some reports indicate a college graduate can earn $500,000 to $1 million more in wages over a lifetime compared to those with a high school diploma. Other studies indicate graduates are more likely to be promoted in the workplace and are generally better placed than non-degreed employees when layoffs occur during economic downturns.

While most of the challenge to help students stay in school rests on the shoulders of Clark College administrators, student advisers and faculty, institutions are realizing that alumni can have a strong impact on the lives of students—60,000 strong to be exact in the case of Clark. That’s the total number of Clark graduates—and 75 percent of those graduates are located within 150 miles of the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area.

Dan Brown and Michael-Jaeger

Left to right, Clark student Daniel Brown and Michael Jaeger ’87 talk about opportunities available in information technology.

Alumni ready to help

Michael Jaeger ’87 is one of those alumni who is a proud member of the Penguin Nation.

“My hope is to be just one of the many resources available to students as they navigate their personal pathways,” said Jaeger, a senior account manager with F2F Events, a tradeshow and event production company.

Specifically, Jaeger and other engaged alumni like him are hoping to make a difference by providing students with mentoring and network connections in conjunction with other wrap-around student services available at the college.

“I could have benefitted tremendously from having access to mentors and other community connections,” said Jaeger. “I suspect my transition from school to career could have been made smoother if I’d had some kind of outside coach who provided meaningful insights.”

It’s those visions and shared experiences many alumni are eager to pass along to students who may be considering dropping out of school. It’s also the reason why Clark College Foundation’s alumni relations office, working with key volunteer boards, are examining specific ways to help students realize that they are not alone in their struggles.

“We’ve been there. We know the challenges students face when it comes to staying in school,” said Gilberg. “We can help.”

Help will come in the form of programs developed in tandem with college Pathways leaders. There will be alumni mentoring networks for students to talk with alumni about their difficulties and concerns. Alumni will share their college experiences and how they navigated challenges, while simultaneously directing current students to the college’s wrap-around services, including professional and economic support, health care and legal consultation.

Ways to get involved

Other opportunities for alumni to get involved include offering professional internships and employment for soon-to-be graduates, as well as financial support for individuals who find themselves in need of funds to complete their studies. Students from community colleges carry an average of $12,000 in debt from federal loans, not including credit card or other types of debt, according to the Community College Research Center from a 2011-2012 sampling.

The average debt load of Clark students is lower—around $5,100 in 2013-2014—because of a combined total of $2.6 million in scholarships, awards and other financial support offered annually through the college and foundation, according to 2015-2016 academic year totals.

Even so, the ability of students to complete their degrees and certifications is greatly affected by finances. According to a recent internal study by Clark College’s Office of Planning and Effectiveness, more than 14 percent of Clark students drop out in their second year because of financial pressures. It’s one more reason why strong counseling, including financial literacy, and scholarship support can play a role in a student’s overall success.

For Gilberg, Jaeger and hundreds of other successful Clark College alumni, the best thing they can do is help students understand how important it is to stay in college and complete their degrees or certificates.

“There are a lot of people like me who can and want to help Clark students figure out how to succeed in the real world,” said Jaeger.

Clark College’s alumni leaders believe a dedicated volunteer resource will play a prominent role in helping current and future students make their own pathways to exciting and promising futures.


Joel B. Munson is the chief advancement officer for Clark College Foundation.

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