Free college for Seattle high school students is an idea worth pursuing, with an eye toward statewide implementation.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal to give every Seattle high school student two free years of community college is intriguing. The Seattle Promise could have a profound impact on the city’s young people and the region’s economy.
Durkan’s proposal builds on an existing program that has already helped about 500 young people attend South Seattle College free for one year. Seattle should continue a measured approach to push more young people toward college and vocational training.
Her plans to carefully expand the program would offer the 117 current participants from Chief Sealth, Cleveland and Rainier Beach high schools a second year of free college and extend eligibility to three more high schools.
Among the 2,846 Seattle Public Schools students who graduated from high school in 2015, 74 percent enrolled in postsecondary education or training of some kind, according to the latest state data available. Among the students who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, 69 percent continued their education or training after high school.
To be eligible for the 13th Year Promise Scholarship, students must meet strict criteria including participation in a college readiness academy during their senior year. Financial need is not one of the requirements, though so far the program has been limited to the Seattle high schools with the highest number of students from low-income families.
As the mayor’s task force looks at expanding further to offer scholarships to all of Seattle’s high school graduates, they must be careful to not let things get out of control.
The city should consider adding financial need as a criteria and make careful plans to prevent students from other school districts from sneaking into Seattle’s program.
Seattle’s existing program has been privately funded by businesses and individual donors, but the new program will require more money to grow to as many as 1,000 students a year. Durkan says she will not take money away from Seattle’s preschool program, because she thinks that is an integral part of getting kids off to a good start so they can be successful later. No decision has been made on how to pay for the expanded new program, but one possibility is the Sound Transit 3 education fund.
The support services that help these Seattle young people get ready for college and stay there once they arrive must be ramped up in a way that all new participants in the free-college program benefit from the same academic, social and financial guidance.
While free college is a worthwhile experiment, the Seattle Promise should be designed as a demonstration project with statewide potential. More than 200 cities and states, including California, Oregon and New York, have decided a public high school education is no longer enough, according to the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, which tracks college-promise programs.
Washington state should follow their lead, as lawmakers have proposed in previous legislative sessions.