The Seattle education levy on the ballot this November would pay for all Seattle Public Schools graduates to attend community college for free — raising questions about who gets tuition help now, and who might benefit from such a program.
This November, Seattle voters are deciding on a major new education levy that would, in part, allow all graduates of Seattle Public Schools to go to community college for free.
The Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy would raise about $620 million over seven years through property taxes. The free community college part of the levy (called “Seattle Promise”) would cost $40.7 million. For the entire levy, the owner of a home with the median value of $665,000 would pay an average $248 a year, up from the $136-per-year bill created by the existing education levy that expires this year.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who pledged to start a free college program when she ran for office, has said she believes the levy will “move the needle on equity more than almost any other program.”
But some wonder if it makes sense for the city to offer every student graduating from Seattle Public Schools a free ride to community college. Don’t low-income students already get money to go to college?
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To understand whether this kind of aid program adds up, it helps to know who gets financial aid, and where it comes from.
Washington has some of the most generous state-supported student aid programs in the nation. There are two programs: the College Bound Scholarship, which offers to pay tuition and fees to college for every low-income Washington student who signs up for the program in eighth grade, maintains at least a 2.0 GPA and stays out of legal trouble; and the State Need Grant, which offers financial aid to low-income families and typically goes to students not reached by College Bound.
At the federal level, the Pell Grant program provides billions of dollars in financial aid nationwide, and the federal government also offers to loan students money for college.
Eligibility is determined by a federal financial aid process that calculates how much a family could contribute to their child’s education, based on income and savings. In addition, at the state level, there’s an income cutoff to qualify for the state’s two programs. For College Bound, the income cutoff for a student from a family of four is $57,000; for the State Need Grant, the cutoff for a family of four is $61,500. (It’s also worth noting that the State Need Grant runs out of money before every student who qualifies receives aid.)
For students who qualify, all of these programs are combined to create a package of financial aid from different sources, awarded on a sliding scale, with the poorest students getting the most help.
Of course, college costs more than just tuition and fees — there are also living and transportation expenses, as well as books and other supplies, which can still make college out of reach for some. Also, the drop-off in funding after a certain income level means some students at the margin receive little or no money, as University of Washington researcher Jim Fridley has documented.
One of the arguments against promise programs is that it’s a better strategy to give more generous aid to the neediest students, to help them with all the additional costs of going to college, instead of offering tuition-free college to all students — including those who can afford to pay the approximately $4,000 a year in tuition at Seattle’s community colleges. (The overall cost of a year at a Washington community college is estimated at $18,000, which includes living expenses.)
Consider how funding is decided with many promise programs: To participate, students first apply for federal and state financial aid, and the program then backfills any tuition and fees not covered by existing aid programs — an approach known as “last-dollar.” In other words, with a promise program, those who receive money might primarily be those students whose families qualify for little or no aid.
The counter-argument: Saying that college is free for everyone is a simple message that’s easy for students and families to understand. And, free college eliminates the financial aid cliff that some families face when they make too much to qualify, but still find college a stretch.
How many Seattle Public School students fall through the financial-aid cracks today? No one really knows; the city didn’t run an analysis before it put the measure on the ballot.
But here are some numbers we do know: About 80 percent of students in Seattle’s class of 2021 who met the income requirements signed up for the College Bound program — so 20 percent of low-income students, or about 300 students in 2017, failed to sign up.
A student who moved into the district from another state after eighth grade wouldn’t be able to take advantage of College Bound. Nor would a student whose family was doing too well financially to qualify, but later fell on hard times.
Finally, promising every student that he or she can go to college might have a positive effect, at the very minimum, on the high-school graduation rate.
In 2017, about 79 percent of all Seattle public school students graduated on time. But among low-income students — those who qualified for free-and-reduced price lunch — there was a split.
Of those low-income students, 75 percent who were signed up for College Bound graduated with their class. Only 54 percent of those who were low-income and not signed up for College Bound graduated with their class. Those numbers mirror state figures, as well, said Rachelle Sharpe, the deputy executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, and it hints at the positive effect that free tuition can have on a student’s success.
“The program — if working well — should be about more than the promise of financial aid,” Sharpe said via email. “Dream big; prepare; take the right steps; stay out of trouble.”
Could Seattle Promise have the same effect? Durkan wants you to think so. But only voters can decide if it’s an experiment worth trying.