This college-application season, many Seattle public-school seniors have a new option: applying for free tuition to three of the city’s community colleges.
The program, which gives the city’s public-high-school graduates two years of tuition-free community college, is being phased in over two years. Last school year, only graduates of six Seattle high schools were eligible to apply. But starting this school year, all high-school seniors — no matter their family’s income — can apply to attend Seattle Central, North Seattle and South Seattle community colleges. Seattle is one of the most-educated cities in the country; 63% of residents 25 and older have a four-year degree, according to 2017 data. But many aren’t homegrown: overall, college-educated Seattle residents born in Washington still lag behind those born elsewhere.
Getting in is intended to be easy: Every student who fills out the application, completes financial-aid forms and attends orientation sessions qualifies for full tuition for two years, or up to 90 credits, whichever comes first. To recruit students, Seattle Promise staff travel to the city’s high schools to give classroom presentations and help students apply, said Melody McMillan, who directs the program.
Staff also assist students with federal and state financial-aid applications, said Sheila Edwards Lange, president of Seattle Central College. These forms determine if students qualify for other government aid; Seattle Promise dollars from the November 2018 city education levy pick up the difference. Most students still have to pay for books, transportation and living expenses, but will save approximately $9,923.40 in tuition costs, officials said. The levy covers tuition for students through the graduating class of 2024. The class of 2025 is eligible for one year of tuition, but the Seattle Colleges Foundation is raising money to sustain the program long-term, program officials said.
But getting students to complete financial-aid forms, which require information about family income and other financial records, has proved difficult, Edwards Lange said. “They start, and then they don’t complete it,” she said. Washington has one of the worst completion rates for financial-aid forms in the country. A new federal law approved this month, though, simplifies the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and is expected to ease the application process.
Some high schools are making the application process simpler. At Ingraham High School, for instance, one student said her entire literature class filled out the Seattle Promise application together.
“What my teacher said was even if you don’t actually plan on going through with Seattle Promise, it’s still a nice thing to have just in case you need it,” said Annika Carlson, a 17-year-old senior there, who was accepted into Seattle Promise at North Seattle College this fall.
Once students enroll, program staff help them register for classes. Retention specialists meet with students to help them stay on track, officials said.
But as the program expands, so may its challenges. About 292 first-year students took advantage of the aid this school year, McMillan said. An additional 107 second-year students, who received aid through the 13th Year Promise Scholarship, also received Seattle Promise scholarships. McMillan said she expects the program to eventually grow to 900 students, though there is no cap.
“One of the main things we’re working through this year is just navigating this expansion,” McMillan said.
Seattle Promise is also bringing younger-than-average students to the city’s college campuses — the average age of a Seattle Central student is 28, Edwards Lange said. “We definitely have to provide more advising and more support in terms of career planning, financial literacy, study skills, time management,” she said.
And Seattle Public Schools officials say they’re also wrestling challenges: about 49% of Seattle Promise students enrolled in a remedial math course in 2018, Seattle Promise officials said. Such classes help students who aren’t ready for college-level math get up to speed, but they cost money and don’t earn students credit. “It’s obviously a huge problem if a large number of students are placed in noncredit-bearing courses,” said Caleb Perkins, executive director of college and career readiness at the school district. “One way we can address this is to make sure they are prepared better in math.”
As the program grows, Perkins said, the school district plans to keep track of who applies, and ultimately enrolls. They don’t have data yet, he said. But when they do, the district will examine student demographics and trends in their career paths. This will help high schools be more purposeful in the way they design their career and technical education programs, he said.
Carlson said she wants to become a teacher. After earning an associate degree at North Seattle, she hopes to transfer to Western Washington University in Bellingham, which has a teacher-certification program.
For now, she said, she’s relieved to have next year’s plans sorted. It takes her about 30 minutes to walk to the campus from her family’s home, she said. Travel is even shorter when Carlson roller-skates there.
“I’m not sure if they are openly stating that they allow roller-skating there,” she joked. “It’s a place I feel very comfortable.”