Seattle tuition-free community college program sees record number of applications despite pandemic


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Growing up, Manny Dubinsky wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college. He had faced social anxieties early in high school, which he said could follow him to college, and he didn’t want to be buried in student debt.

“It freaked me out a bit at a young age,” said Dubinsky, 19, a senior at Middle College High School in Seattle. “I was like, ‘I don’t have to go to college to have a job.'”

Then he enrolled in a summer course at Seattle Maritime Academy, a program run by Seattle Central College that offers certificate programs for students who wish to pursue careers in the maritime industry, including passenger transportation, seafood fishing and processing, international trade and operations military.

“After this summer I was really curious,” he said. “I was like, ‘Maybe I can learn more. Maybe I could turn that into something.

When he heard about the Seattle Promise, the city’s tuition-free community college program Funded by taxpayers through Seattle’s Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy, he knew this was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up. With the help of his father, he applied to the program this spring, choosing to continue his studies at the Maritime Academy, located in Ballard.

Dubinsky is one of 2,100 seniors – over 50% of the 2021 Seattle public schools class – who applied to the Promise program this year, reflecting a 19% increase from last year, data shows of State. Of those, about 66% were students of color, said Melody McMillan, executive director of the Seattle Promise program.

The numbers are much higher than the program’s enrollment projections in the pandemic era, which Promise staff say could be affected by the nationwide hit on enrollment numbers in the pandemic. community colleges; community colleges saw an approximately 13.1% drop in enrollment in fall 2020, according to Inside Higher Ed.

At Seattle Colleges – which are made up of three Seattle community colleges: North, South, and Central – overall student enrollment has fallen by about 11%, Chancellor Shouan Pan said.

“It seems really real that the Promise program has given structure to the students,” said Kurt Buttleman, vice chancellor of academic achievement and student of Seattle Colleges. “It gave them hope for the future… and it gave the students joy. For many families this was one of the few bright spots at various times over the past year that really helped. “

While it’s unclear how big a role the pandemic played in Seattle Promise’s fall 2021 candidacy numbers, McMillan said students who saw former seniors lose a final year of high school in person might have realized they didn’t know what the fall would be like. look like – and that the Promise program provided post-secondary stability that might not otherwise be guaranteed.

“Plans can change in an instant,” McMillan said. “… With students suffering economic impacts in different ways (during the pandemic), Seattle Promise offers a fiscally responsible option for families who may have been affected.”

Although the number of requests was higher than last year, the outreach process has been difficult this year. because the students were taking distance learning courses, she said. Promise staff members worked with the district to schedule an appointment with all seniors to discuss their post-secondary education options and sent frequent reminders to make sure they didn’t miss it.

The program also offered several application workshops – interpreted into several different languages ​​- with the aim of making the process more accessible, McMillan said.

However, building relationships with students was still tricky during a pandemic school year. Promise staff members are currently working to help students complete their financial aid applications, which are necessary to first see how much federal aid a student is entitled to. Staff members are also considering ways to prepare incoming freshmen and eliminate learning gaps before they enter campus in the fall, Buttleman said.

Ted Dubinsky, Manny’s father, said he looked forward to seeing his son gain hands-on learning experience through the academy.

“It gives a lot of relief to have a plan of where it’s going to go that will end up using it,” he said. He added that his son had already received a job offer, subject to his graduation from the academy.

“I would definitely encourage a lot of kids to do this,” he said.

The Promise program was launched in 2018, after Seattle voters overwhelmingly approved the Family, Education, Preschool and Promise tax, which expanded the college’s promise and gave public high school graduates the city two years of free post-secondary education. It started as a smaller initiative based in six Seattle high schools called the Grade 13 scholarship, which used private donations to cover one year of schooling.

The program is primarily tax-funded, with the help of private and public partnerships through the Seattle Colleges Foundation.

The The free college pledge model has been hailed by education experts and has grown in popularity across the country, including New York City, California, Michigan, and Oregon.

“More coordinated efforts between high schools and colleges for students making the transition to post-secondary are really essential,” said Nicole Yohalem, director of youth opportunities at the Community Center for Education Results, a non-profit organization. lucrative business that strives to fill the gap in educational opportunity and success at South King. County.

In a 2019 CCER survey of over 7,000 students in South King County and South Seattle, 96% said they wanted to continue their education after high school, even though less than a third graduated college or professional degree in your mid-twenties.

The same poll conducted this year found similar results, despite indications that the pandemic could impact academic choices. This year, about 95% of students surveyed said they wanted to pursue post-secondary options, which may include a four-year degree, two-year degree, apprenticeship, or college diploma.

“Our students know that a post-secondary education becomes a requirement for the careers they want to aspire to… or for a stable income,” said Alejandra Pérez, Director of College and Careers at CCER. “Who has been allowed access to what, who has been protected and who is not – this shows enormous inequity based on race and class in our community. And many of our students come from families who have been directly affected by this. “

Programs like Seattle Promise are essential in reminding parents and community members not only to nurture student aspirations, Pérez said, but also “to actually believe them when they say they want to go to college.” .

“It’s literally a promise,” she said. “Our students can have a path after high school even if they don’t know what they want to do. It can be either a safety net or a path you want to take. And these are just as valuable.

In the past, critics have expressed concerns that the program is limited to Seattle students, although many low-income students have moved south. While the Seattle Promise program is limited to students in the city’s public schools, a King County pledge is underway to increase equity in historically underserved areas of the county.

It’s not the same as the Seattle Promise and doesn’t offer a free tuition guarantee, but King County Promise program staff are looking for partners who could increase schools’ capacity to offer advice to students on post-secondary success, said Kyla Lackie, Principal. from Puget Sound College and Career Network.

The application process for potential partners will be worked out later this year, Lackie said. Hopefully, she said, the partnerships will officially launch in fall 2022.

“The model is that school districts, colleges and community organizations that wish to form a Promise partnership will join and apply,” she said. “… We thought and pondered the question, ‘How do we make sure that Seattle Promise or some other Promise program doesn’t stop at the city limits of Seattle, but is it actually something more students are doing? County of King have access? “”

In addition, the county program is not limited only students who have just finished secondary school.

“Young people who have dropped out of high school but want to continue their education can be a part of it,” said Lackie.

She added, “With King County Promise, we’ve always been really (focused on) watching with an eye on the systems changes that will increase fairness and the practices and strategies that will support students. Many of these strategies seem like they are timely.

In Seattle, Promise executives are constantly refining their model.

For example, Barbara Childs, executive director of communications and recruiting, said the team is currently considering potentially expanding its scholarships, which currently offer $ 500 per term to eligible students for expenses other than tuition fees. schooling, such as books, childcare and housing. Officials are also discussing the idea of ​​completion scholarships for students – for those who might need more than 90 credits to earn a degree – and expanded mentoring for students of color, she said. declared.

“We want these 2,100 students to see for themselves how smart, brilliant and amazing they are, and to help them discover for themselves the potential they have,” Childs said.

Dubinsky, who plans to start classes at Seattle Maritime Academy this summer or fall, said he’s eager to learn more about an industry he’s never had the chance to explore.

“I’m really grateful to have (the Promise program),” he said. “… There is going to be a lot more to learn next year … but I just know this is a great opportunity and I will try to make the most of it.”

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