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Seattle plans to expand free college tuition program with federal funds

A general view shows desks inside a classroom arranged according to social distancing guidelines as students begin classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic at the University of New Mexico in August 2020. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

Seattle will use some of its COVID-19 relief money from the American Rescue Plan to expand Seattle Promise, its free college tuition program, and offer additional college preparation and persistence support for recent public high school graduates.

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“For those who have had problems in their classes or had to drop out, we’re going to make sure they can come back [and] be supported,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said, after a year of distance learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

More pre-college prep, summer programs, a pathway to college completion program through a partnership with the UW, and extended tuition and benefits support will be offered to students in the Seattle Promise program as part of the added funding.

In December 2020, the city also passed legislation to remove the two-year enrollment limit for first and second year Promise students in direct response to student requests to enroll part-time or defer enrollment due to remote instruction and other challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“New federal funding and partnerships,” a release from the city explains, “will address educational equity toward three key program outcomes: student preparation for college-level coursework, retention in college, and completion of certificate, credential, degree, or transfer to a four year institution.”

Seattle Promise began in 2018, and offers two years of free tuition to a Seattle community college for job training or a degree. It’s jointly funded by the City of Seattle’s education levy and from private and public partnerships through the Seattle Colleges Foundation. Students must apply in their senior year, but all Seattle public high school graduates are eligible regardless of grade point average, income, ability, or country of birth.

With the University of Washington and Seattle Colleges as partners, there will be a support program for Seattle Promise students who want to transfer after their first two years.

“It’s so exciting for the student to realize they can take advantage of this transfer opportunity to complete their four-year degrees,” Seattle Colleges Chancellor Shouan Pan said. “… This collaboration has become a national model for higher education.”

In fall 2020, the program set a record with more than 845 enrolled participants, 62% of whom identified as students of color. Durkan said 2,100 students have applied for next fall.

“Seattle Promise has always been about making a commitment to our students that college can be a reality. In addition to financial barriers to college, students have faced so many new barriers during COVID-19. To set up more students for success, we’re expanding equity scholarships, creating new summer program, and supporting students who want to return to Seattle Promise or extend their learning beyond two years,” Durkan said.

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“Working with Seattle College and the University of Washington, we’re expanding the Seattle Promise program to create opportunities to complete their course of study and more successfully transfer to a four-year institution if they choose,” Durkan continued. “COVID-19 may have changed our city in many ways, but it has not changed my commitment to ensuring all Seattle youth have access to a world class post-secondary education and pathways to high-wage jobs right here in Seattle.”

The KIRO Radio Newsdesk contributed to this report.

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