How Seattle plans to scale up its free community college program and help more students


When Shelzy Juta found out in high school that she wasn’t going to go to the University of Washington, she thought about not going to college at all.

But the Seattle Promise program had something hard to miss: two years of free community college, and she could quit at any time.

She never did.

Today, the freshly admitted UW student is one of roughly a quarter of her Promise program graduates to graduate from community college.

With more than 10 million

Last school year, more than a third of students in Seattle Promise – the city’s toll-free community college program – dropped out or were no longer admitted to the program.

The city is now offering them the opportunity to re-enroll in the program and is extending the time these students can attend classes for free, which is typically two years.

The $ 40 million program began in 2018 after voters agreed to a city-wide levy. It helps more than 1,100 students attend community college, a 467% increase over the first year cohort which was just under 200 students. It was created to balance longstanding socio-economic inequalities in university degrees and access to the region’s labor market. Most of the participants – Seattle public high school graduates – were children of color.

Students are eligible regardless of GPA or income level. Baltimore, Boston, and San Francisco have similar programs.

Attempts to establish a nationwide community college program had sunk into party politics. It was part of President Joe Biden’s election promises to “rebuild the middle class,” but just last month the idea was removed from the $ 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed by Congress last week.

About a quarter of the students who started Seattle Promise in Fall 2018 and 2019 will have graduated in two years. After three years, the success rate improved: more than a third of the 2018 cohort graduated, 9 percentage points more than the national average for community colleges.

Also in the works: a new program to facilitate student transition to UW for an associate degree and larger scholarships to help students meet living expenses and other college-related expenses.

“It will provide new, robust support to our fellows and drive those graduation rates higher,” said Dwane Chappelle, who heads the city’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Intervention. “We want to make sure we’re building better transition points [for students]. We want [those transitions] to be as seamless as possible. ”

More help is needed for students moving to four-year universities, Juta said.

“I had a hard time figuring out how to transfer credits,” she said. As part of the partnership, the UW will provide a staff member to help Promise students enter the university. It will also offer an academic bridging program that will allow students to enroll in some university classes and offer mentoring prior to official transfer.

Applying for the Promise program is easy, said Juta. Seattle Colleges and their high school, Chief Sealth, held briefings, and they were already participating in Running Start, a program that allows high school students to take community college courses and earn college credits, in South Seattle lessons.

Her first course, which was paid for by the Promise program, including a course in business calculus, proved exceptionally difficult – hard enough for her to consider putting it aside. The program’s staff encouraged her to get her way, and she later ended up on the dean’s list.

“I didn’t take school seriously in high school and people thought I was doing a dead-end job,” she said. “You convinced me that I was made for the better.”

The coaching through the program also helped her find the right career path; She originally wanted to study medicine, but changed her mind after meeting local entrepreneurs during a summer orientation program. She dreams of making enough money to open a women-only gym.

City officials assume this round of federal investment will last through 2023. However, if the changes they made prove effective, they will find a more permanent source of funding.