Shelzy Juta is a business student at South Seattle College. She didn’t always think college was for her, but Juta’s Seattle Promise specialist offered her the resources she needed to keep going. Juta, a first-generation college student who aspires to own a business, says her experience in college has taught her that, “I’m really smart.”

Achieving confidence like this is one of the reasons Juta and her Seattle peers are finding success through the Seattle Promise program, one of many efforts around the state designed to boost enrollment and persistence in post-high school education. That boost is sorely needed.

Jobs in Washington state are increasingly being filled by people with a post-high school credential, such as a degree, apprenticeship or certificate. In fact, the large majority of jobs in Washington will require a credential in the coming years. But, based on estimates for the high school class of 2017, less than half – just 41% – of Washington high school students are expected to earn a credential by age 26. 

To prepare young people for success in their careers and communities, partners across the education, nonprofit and business sectors are working together to help more students enroll in and complete their credentials. Initiatives to increase support for students navigating postsecondary systems and provide opportunities to earn college credit while in high school are just two examples of the ways Washington colleges and universities are working to better support a more diverse group of students on the path to a credential.

Seattle Promise: Resources to navigate and pay for college

Achieving higher rates of credential completion relies on greater postsecondary enrollment and persistence among Washington’s high school graduates. In 2018, Seattle voters approved a levy to create and support Seattle Promise, a program that covers tuition for Seattle public high school graduates at Seattle Colleges for up to two years, or the first 90 credits of a student’s first degree.

Seattle Promise also offers flexible funding through equity scholarships for books, transportation, housing and more for students with financial need. But, it’s not just the money. Key support and advising start during students’ junior year of high school and continue until a student finishes a credential or transfers to a four-year university. The combination of guidance and financial support is working.

“Seattle Promise retention and completion rates outperform the larger Seattle Colleges student body,” as well as comparative rates nationally, says Melody McMillan, Seattle Promise senior executive director at Seattle Colleges. “We’re not just helping students access college but persist and be successful.” Individualized, ongoing guidance throughout a student’s time in the program can make the difference for students like Juta, who said the resources her specialist provided helped her stay the course in her first business class when she wanted to quit.

All graduates of Seattle Public Schools can take advantage of Seattle Promise, but paperwork can be a challenge for even the most organized of families. Seattle Promise assists students and families with applications, admissions and completion of federal and state financial aid forms. As a result of this assistance, nearly 90% of fall 2021 Seattle Promise applicants completed their financial aid applications, compared to 48.6% for the Washington state high school class of 2021. In addition, half of all seniors eligible for Seattle Promise applied, and almost 60% of applicants enrolled in a Seattle community college.

The City of Seattle’s Department of Education and Early Learning recently reported a 37% three-year graduation rate for the 2018 Seattle Promise cohort, exceeding the average national three-year completion rate of 28% reported by the National Center for Education Statistics. 

Dual credit: Giving high school students a jumpstart

Wenatchee Valley College (WVC) wanted to expand the precollege experience across its service range, which includes 18 school districts across more than 10,000 square miles. As a result, the college has worked to grow a collection of dual credit programs for high school students, some starting as early as ninth grade.

Dual credit programs allow students to earn high school and college credits at the same time. In just the past year, 198 students across the 18 school districts have earned an associate’s degree from WVC alongside their high school diploma.

WVC continues to focus on growing three dual credit opportunities in partnership with regional high schools:

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  • Running Start: High school and college credit for students taking courses on campus at WVC. Participation in Running Start through WVC has increased almost 50 percent from the 2015-16 school year to the 2020-21 school year.
  • College in the High School (CIHS): Sophomore, junior and senior students receive WVC credit for about two dozen courses taught on the high school campus.
  • Career and Technical Education (CTE): Students with a B or better in certain high school career and technical courses can earn both high school and college credit in 10 career-focused pathways such as engineering technology, criminal justice, agriculture and business/accounting.

Often, these courses enhance the skills and confidence students need to enter and complete college, save money by offering free- or reduced-tuition college credit and cut down on time to degree. National research indicates students who earn college credit while in high school are more likely to graduate high school, persist into a second year of post-high school education and complete a bachelor’s degree within four years.

Dual credit offerings also remove barriers to college. For example, commuting long distances to college campuses could be challenge. However, CIHS and CTE students can earn credits their local high school. “We have students graduating with a two-year degree without leaving their town,” says Dr. Jim Richardson, WVC president, who gives a lot of credit to K-12 partners such as Bridgeport High School, one of WVC’s most successful collaborators.

These Seattle and Wenatchee efforts—from financial aid to individualized guidance and college-credit opportunities in high school—are potential models for other regions and partnerships that can break down barriers and help more students earn credentials and achieve big dreams. “It’s my dream job, telling students and families that ‘yes, college is for you,” says McMillan. “The program is a winning model for students and a transformative one for higher education.”

Partnership for Learning, the education foundation of the Washington Roundtable, brings together business leaders and education partners to improve our state’s education system, so Washington students are ready to pursue the career pathways of their choice. Learn more at credentialessential.com.