This fall, Seattle voters will decide whether the city's high-school graduates should get to go to community college for free — an idea that's taken hold throughout the country, to sometimes mixed reviews.
On Thursday, a state agency that is trying to boost the state's college-going rate heard elements of the plan from Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who made free community college a campaign promise last year.
The Seattle Promise program is part of the $637.8 million Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Levy. Durkan talked it up during a meeting of the Washington Student Achievement Council, an agency that provides strategic planning, oversight, advocacy and programs that encourage students to continue their educations after high school.
The council has set a goal of getting at least 70 percent of Washington adults, ages 25-44, to earn a postsecondary credential. Currently, according to the Washington Roundtable, a state policy group, only about 40 percent of students from the high school graduating class of 2015 are on track to reach that goal.
Why 70 percent? The Roundtable, which has adopted a similar goal, says about 63 percent of Washington “career jobs,” or those that pay between $60,000 and $100,000 a year, will require a bachelor's degree. Another 11 percent will require a community college degree.
“When we hear not everybody needs to go to college — well, if you want a career job, college is in your future,” said Brian Jeffries, policy director of the Washington Roundtable and Partnership for Learning.
Just how much free tuition helps is unclear. Several recent studies have shown that Promise programs do not always reach the students they're intended for, Jeffries said. For college students from low-income families, expenses like housing, transportation and food can be more of a deterrent than the cost of tuition and fees, he said.
And other forces that keep students from earning degrees seem to be at play. For example, the Roundtable's research shows that an equal proportion — about 77 percent — of black and white students graduating from Washington high schools enter college. But 13 percent fewer black students complete college.
"We don't have a lot of answers for why that gap occurs, but whatever is occurring now needs to change," Jeffries said.
In an interview after the presentation, Durkan said the levy, if it passes, will provide a range of wraparound services — such as high-school counseling and access to school nurses — designed to overcome those barriers, and "get these students centered so they succeed in college."
The levy would grow the city's subsidized-preschool program by 1,000 seats, and help students in elementary, middle and high school by boosting the number of counselors and funding for school nurses.
Seattle started a free community college program in 2008 with one high school and one community college, using private scholarship dollars. It has since expanded to more of the city's schools. The 13th Year Program — so named because it covers the first year of community college — has served as a kind of pilot for Seattle Promise, Durkan said, allowing the colleges to test ideas and find out what works best.
Durkan said the city expects it will need to do private fundraising to address housing, transportation and food expenses for low-income students who participate.
"I really believe we have a city that is committed to opportunity for all," she said. "This is a program that can move the needle on equity more than almost any other program."