Illustration depicting two purple silhouettes of a male-presenting and a female-presenting individual in a graduation cap and gown walking. From their caps gold tassels with "2020" and raised-fist charms stream behind them.

Seattle Promise Is Building Educational Equity

by Shouan Pan, Dr. Brent Jones, and Ana MariCauce

In the midst of a global pandemic, the Seattle Promise program, which guarantees two years tuition-free at Seattle Colleges, is thriving. This fall, more than 1,100 students are enrolled in Seattle Promise, working toward a degree or certificate they might otherwise not be able to afford. 

Nationally, during the pandemic, nearly all community colleges saw enrollment drop. But at Seattle Colleges, the nationally recognized Seattle Promise program actually grew post-secondary enrollment because of our partnerships and targeted student services. 

When Mayor Jenny Durkan championed the expansion of the 13th Year Promise to the Seattle Promise program nearly four years ago — in partnership with Seattle Colleges and Seattle Public Schools (SPS) — we estimated that 1 out of every 5 students would join Seattle Promise. Yet this year, 1 out of every 4 SPS high school graduates enrolled to take advantage of this opportunity. More students than ever enrolling in the Seattle Promise is a good thing. It means we’ve created a program that fills a real need, especially during the pandemic. 

Students are facing challenges with COVID-era learning, rent, child care, and in some cases, juggling multiple jobs. COVID-19 has raised new barriers for many post-secondary students, with higher impacts for students of color, students with disabilities, and students who are caregivers. 

To further educational equity, we support the proposal currently before the Seattle City Council, a three-year, nearly $11 million plan to:

  • Help students who have faced barriers during the pandemic. 
  • Provide a pathway back into the program for the students shut out of the Seattle Promise due to COVID-19. 
  • Expand Seattle Promise to allow additional scholarships for students seeking a four-year degree.  

Our plan has three components: First, it allows students who had to drop out during the pandemic reenter to restart the program for a certificate or degree. It is not just common sense — it’s the right thing to do. Newly released data shows that Promise scholars of color benefit most from more time to complete their degrees — more than 20 additional scholars from the 2018 cohort finished their degree within three years. Flexible COVID-19 enrollment policies will enable more students to receive free tuition, equity scholarships, and completion supports in a third year. 

Second, this plan would provide dedicated support for Promise students transferring to the University of Washington, including support with admissions, coursework, and progress monitoring to smooth student transitions. Providing up-front advising will help Seattle Promise students prepare for their majors and complete successful transfers. 

Finally, this plan expands equity scholarships and creates the first-ever municipal match for the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS) — an important state program that will help train students in critical fields like health care and engineering. A new partnership that Durkan, WSOS, and partners will announce this week will now allow many Seattle Promise scholars to seek up to $22,500 in flexible financial aid support for a four-year degree. 

This plan will support Seattle Promise students to achieve their educational goals despite the interruptions they faced due to the pandemic, especially the students furthest from opportunity. Data shows that the 2020–21 class of Seattle Promise are 58% students of color. And our Promise scholars are beating the national average for completion. That is directly attributable to the wraparound support included in the Seattle Promise and the equity funds that should be expanded. 

As Seattle recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, we have the opportunity to build back better. Educational equity is central to Seattle’s future, especially for our Communities of Color. As education and community leaders, we are urging continued support for one of our most effective programs: Seattle Promise.

Editors’ Note: This article was updated on 11/17/2021 with the correct spelling of one of the contributors’ names as well as an updated hyperlink to the Seattle Colleges’ Seattle Promise program webpage.

Shouan Pan is chancellor of Seattle Colleges.

Dr. Brent Jones is superintendent of Seattle Public Schools.

Ana MariCauce is president of the University of Washington.

🎨 Featured illustration by Vlad Verano.

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