In high school, after she learned she wouldn’t get into the University of Washington, Shelzy Juta thought about not attending college at all.
But the Seattle Promise program offered something hard to pass up: 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 about a quarter of students in her Promise program class who have graduated from community college.
With more than $10 million in additional federal funding, city officials are making changes to the program to raise the odds for current and future Promise program participants, including incentives to bring back 500 students who dropped out during the pandemic.
Last school year, more than a third of students enrolled in Seattle Promise — the city’s tuition-free community college program — dropped out or became ineligible for the program.
The city is now allowing them the chance to reenroll in the program, and extended the amount of time these students can take classes for free, which is typically two years.
The $40 million program began in 2018 after voters approved a citywide levy. It helps more than 1,100 students attend community college, a 467% increase from the first year’s cohort, which was just shy of 200 students. It was created to help offset longstanding socioeconomic inequities in college completion and access to the region’s job market. Most participants — graduates of Seattle’s public high schools — have been kids of color.
Students are eligible regardless of GPA or income level. Baltimore, Boston and San Francisco have similar programs.
Attempts at establishing a nationwide community college program have been mired in partisan politics. It was among President Joe Biden’s campaign 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 students who started Seattle Promise in fall 2018 and 2019 completed their studies in two years. After three years, the success rate improved: More than a third of the 2018 cohort completed a degree, 9 percentage points higher than the national average for community colleges.
Also in the works: a new program to ease students’ transition into UW after getting an associate degree, and bigger scholarships to help students cover living expenses and other costs associated with college.
“It’s going to provide our scholars with new, robust support, and continue to push those graduation rates up,” said Dwane Chappelle, who directs the city’s Department of Education and Early Learning. “We want to make sure that we’re building better transition points [for students]. We want [those transitions] to be as seamless as possible.”
More help for students transferring to four-year universities is needed, said Juta.
“I had a hard time figuring out how to transfer” credits, she said. As part of the partnership, UW will dedicate a staff member to helping Promise students ease into the university. It will also provide an academic bridge program, allowing students to enroll in some university classes before officially transferring, and provide mentorship.
Applying to the Promise program was easy, Juta said. Seattle Colleges and her high school, Chief Sealth, held information sessions, and she was already taking classes at South Seattle through Running Start, a program that allows high school students to take community college classes and earn college credit.
Her first round of classes paid by the Promise program, including a business calculus course, proved exceptionally difficult — hard enough for her to consider putting it aside. The program’s staff encouraged her to push through, and she later ended up on the dean’s list.
“I didn’t take school seriously in high school, and people thought that I would work a dead-end job,” she said. “They convinced me that I was made for better.”
Coaching through the program also helped her find the right career path; she’d originally wanted to go into medicine, but changed her mind after meeting local entrepreneurs during a summer orientation program. She dreams of making enough money to open an all-women gym.
City officials expect this round of federal investments to last through 2023. But if the changes they make prove effective, they said, they will find a more permanent funding source.