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Seattle’s tuition-free community college program comes to the rescue during the pandemic

Joy Resmovits, The Seattle Times on

Published in Lifestyles

Two years ago, Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved an education levy giving the city’s public high-school graduates two years of free community college.

But just as the program was gearing up to start its first year at full capacity, the pandemic hit.

Schools shut down. And the recruitment and enrollment specialists stationed at each Seattle high school to raise awareness and help students apply could only work from home.

A summer session meant to help prepare students for college life? That had to be entirely redesigned.

And the students already enrolled in the program? They suddenly needed Wi-Fi, devices and a space to learn on their own.

And yet, in some ways, Seattle Promise couldn’t have come at a better time. Despite the hurdles, the program has exceeded its pandemic-era enrollment projections. That’s even as nationally, community colleges saw a 22% dip; statewide, community college enrollment is down 13.5% this year.

 

This fall, Seattle Promise counted 846 students, including 699 in their first year, and 147 in their second. That represents about one-third of Seattle Public Schools’ class of 2020. And 62% are students of color.

“There’s a pervasive narrative out there that some students don’t want to go to college. Our students and data suggest that students overwhelmingly want to go to college,” said Nicole Yohalem, opportunity youth initiatives director at The Community Center for Education Results, a nonprofit that provides data, research and other supports for schools in South King County. “They understand how critical some education post-high school is.”

The initiative is one piece of the puzzle to get more Washington students into college. By any metric, a college degree makes it much easier to find stable work. And it’s an idea that’s been gaining traction nationwide: President-elect Joe Biden, whose wife, Jill, teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College, has promised to make two years of community college tuition-free for people of all ages. Though, of course, it’s unclear how America will foot the bill.

Beyond financial help, the Seattle Promise aims to help students persist through college, assisting them in preparing for classes and organizing their schedules. Thanks to the levy that funds the Seattle Promise, there’s a caseworker for each 100 students — significantly higher than the Seattle Colleges’ ratio of 500 to 700 students for every adviser.

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