Our region’s rapidly changing and vibrantly growing economy requires education beyond high school. Whether a college degree or a career credential, postsecondary education and professional training is necessary to secure a living wage job and a meaningful career. We owe it to the students growing up in South King County to prepare them for careers and employment opportunities in their communities.
This is why Washington state set a goal for 70% college completion by the year 2030. Readers might think King County is steadily reaching that goal, but in reality, we are not even close.
In South King County, where our institutions call home, less than one third of our residents finish a two- or four-year degree by their mid-20s. And if you look more closely by race, household income and if a student is first in his or her family to attend college, postsecondary graduation rates are even more disheartening. Leaving this problem unaddressed fuels displacement of communities, exacerbates income inequality and increases unacceptable racial disparities.
The good news is that the overwhelming majority of high school students want to go to college. A recent Road Map Project report shows 96% of South King County high school students say they want to continue their education after high school. What they are not getting is adequate support and guidance to accomplish this goal. Getting students the support they need to achieve their dreams and contribute to our community will take a major investment.
The Metropolitan King County Council has a unique opportunity to change this unjust reality by the decisions it makes regarding the Puget Sound Taxpayer Accountability Account (PSTAA) funds, totaling $318 million. In 2015, the state Legislature added a fee to Sound Transit construction contracts to generate revenues to improve academic outcomes in early learning, K-12 schools and higher education. Our institutions are doing what we can and devoting resources to this challenge. The Green River College Foundation recently launched a private fundraising campaign to support student completion. The Auburn School District added graduation specialists in each high school last year. But our institutions simply lack the resources to get this enormous job done ourselves.
The current high-school counselor-to-student ratio in Washington is, on average, 482:1. This is almost double the recommended standard, and the reality is that college transition makes up only about 20% of a high school counselor’s duties. Once students transition to college, the situation is even more challenging, with adviser to student ratios hovering around 800:1. Yet we know intensive advising supports during high school and college work to increase college enrollment, persistence and completion.
In addition, more than half of Auburn’s students live in poverty, and student homelessness across South King County has increased by 163% since 2010. Economic challenges in our students’ lives add to the obstacles that must be addressed in helping move them from high school to college to career.
State policymakers recognize we have a long way to go. That’s why the state Legislature made a historic investment in college affordability this past session. But tuition support is only one step. Now, King County has a unique opportunity to leave a lasting legacy of support for young Washingtonians who want to live, work and contribute to our growing communities.
In coming weeks, the council will vote on how much of the $318 million in PSTAA funds will go to create a student support system that spans high school to college to career pathways and delivers postsecondary credentials at the levels now required by our economy. Investing 40% of these funds could help more than 140,000 youth achieve their goals and support our economically growing communities. It would also create powerful proof of the concept of developing and supporting students for the opportunities the state is creating.
Currently, our region is a place of haves and have nots. ZIP code and family income overwhelmingly determine a child’s future. PSTAA funds come from a tax on Sound Transit construction. The goal of this massive transit expansion is to connect the region’s people to the region’s job centers. Wouldn’t it be nice if our own young people could get the support they need to ride those trains to livable-wage jobs and contribute to our community prosperity?
This is a historic opportunity to invest in ourselves for our future. We need our County Council’s help.