Nearly 1,800 teens, half of Seattle Public Schools’ (SPS) class of 2020, applied to attend community college through the city’s free tuition program.

This week, city and education officials in Seattle celebrated the news, as the applicants represented the first class in the newly expanded Seattle Promise: As of this academic year, students from all of the city’s 17 public high schools were eligible to apply.

That number surpassed the goal of 1,360 applications that city officials set for the program, which launched as a pilot in six high schools in 2018.


The Promise was one part of the city’s nearly $600 million education levy, which also included citywide preschool and other education initiatives. City officials pitched the measure as a way to offer homegrown kids — especially students of color and those from low-income families — a shot at Seattle’s booming economy.

The Seattle Promise offers two years of free tuition, or 90 credits, at one of Seattle’s three community colleges. To qualify, students have to graduate from Seattle Public Schools. Preliminary data from Seattle Colleges shows the program is garnering interest from the students it was designed to serve. As a group, students of color make up a higher share of the application pool this year, at least 68%, than they do in the SPS class of 2020, 57%.

But the demographics could shift over time, said Barbara Childs, executive director of communications and recruitment for Seattle Colleges. As the city gentrifies and families move out of the region to find more affordable housing, the share of SPS students living in poverty — 88% of whom are students of color — declined by 16% in the past six years.

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The applicants are from schools all over the city, with the most coming from Franklin and Cleveland, followed by Ballard, Rainier Beach and Ingraham high schools. Seattle Colleges staff hold office hours two to three days a week in every high school and help with outreach in every high school.

While income data isn’t available for this year’s applicants, who haven’t yet filled out government financial-aid forms, data from last year’s application pool show low-income students — from households with a gross income of up to $75,000 — made up about 68% of the applicant pool.

As high as this year’s numbers are, the next challenge will be to get those students to enroll. Only about 40% of last year’s 755 Seattle Promise applicants eventually enrolled. Neither Seattle Colleges nor the city has a definitive answer for why, but the drop-off is common for community colleges, said Childs. She and her colleagues suspect it has to do with students getting stuck while navigating financial-aid forms. The program offers students assistance, and a new federal law is expected to make the process easier.

To receive aid by fall, students must apply for financial aid and attend two orientation events hosted by Seattle Colleges.