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

Joy Resmovits, The Seattle Times on

Published in Lifestyles

First, they had to assess and upgrade their students’ tech.

But the challenges were greater than that. “The environment they’re in is a bigger issue,” said Kurt Buttleman, the Seattle Community College system’s vice-chancellor for academic and student success. “You’re in a smaller apartment with 3 siblings and a mom who’s trying to work from home; you can’t do your classes because you’re babysitting your brother.”

Then, there were the incoming students, who had already connected with Seattle Promise staffers in person at their high schools. In May, the program set up a pop-up function on its website that invites students to connect with high school support staff.

In any other year, new students would attend an in-person Summer Bridge program to orient them to college life. The colleges changed the format this year, rejecting two packed days of online meetings. Promise staffers talked about what McMillan calls “academic tenacity,” the idea that while school is hard, students have already overcome tough life challenges.

Staffers focused on surveying students, talked about learning outcomes and sent them packages with swag to keep them excited.

Instead of setting students up with a course catalog and an adviser, Promise administrators sent students a proposed course schedules based on their interests. They also added bonus workshops for students and their families.

They allowed students to drop in, virtually, at any time over a few weeks, to confirm or tweak their schedules.

Administrators upgraded their own technology. They now get alerts to let them know if students haven’t regularly been signing into their learning portals. That tells them who needs help.

The Seattle Promise grew from a smaller initiative based at six Seattle high schools, called the 13th Year Scholarship, which used private donations to cover a year of tuition. In 2018, voters overwhelmingly approved the over-$600 million Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy, which grew the College Promise — and bought the class of 2019 a second-year tuition-free.

Seattle Promise costs about $5.7 million. Most of that comes from levy money. The initiative has raised an additional $1 million in private money through a new foundation, said Kerry Howell, the Seattle Colleges’ vice president for advancement.

The fundraising initially intended to make the Promise sustainable beyond its voter-determined shelf life of seven years. “What we’re learning is that in the current fundraising environment … people want to give money that is going to make a difference right now,” said Howell.

The foundation will soon launch a new campaign to help update the colleges’ infrastructure and facilities.

Boosting college-going takes time


Changing patterns and perceptions about college-going requires a long-term behavioral shift.

The Promise, said Michael Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, might be bucking enrollment trends because it has the benefit of a longer runway. “The message about Seattle Promise has been resonating around the community now for a few years,” he said. “Last year, you had seniors and families hearing about it since eighth grade.”

Boosting college-going is a long-term project. “People in privileged communities and families start hearing about college-going and assume they’re going to college when they’re in elementary school. That’s not the case with the entire population,” Meotti said. “You can’t turn around the future … by just telling them in 12th grade that it’s free.”

To change behaviors, assumptions and systems need to change, too.

“We need to ask families what their experiences are and not make assumptions,” said Jeffries. “We’ve done a poor job … in truly engaging with students, especially first-generation students.”

Yohalem said that for the program to be more equitable, it should concentrate counselors at high schools with the greatest need, and expand eligibility beyond those who just graduated from high school or can enroll full time.

“We have to ask, ‘Who gets boxed out of that kind of approach?’ People who are working to contribute to the family income, raising children of their own,” she said.

In other words, in its current form, Yohalem said, “While the Promise represents a huge step forward, it might fail a rigorous equity screen.”

The city and Promise staff are weighing these concerns. It recently created an equity scholarship and a peer mentorship program. “We are working with students to be as flexible as possible and support them during the pandemic,” Barb Childs, executive director of communications and recruitment, said in an email. “It has always been an option for students to request to take a quarter off due to life circumstances, including COVID related issues.”

It is seeking ways to help current students take time off without losing their scholarships.

Said McMillan: “The pandemic invited us to be good listeners to our students, for us to be surveying them to see, what did they need?”

©2020 The Seattle Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC