A photo shows trees with orange leaves in front of a brick buildings.
Approximately 1,100 students are currently enrolled in Seattle Promise, the City's free community college program. (Credit: Seattle Central College)

Three years ago, Seattle voters approved the Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise Levy, which included funding for two years of free community college to seniors graduating from Seattle Public Schools. Since then the Seattle Promise program has been brought to scale. This year it will serve an estimated 1,100 students at three campuses including North Seattle College, Seattle Central College, and South Seattle College. Now thanks to a partnership between the City and the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS), 60 participating students pursuing degrees in the trades, science, technology, engineering, mathematics (STEM), and health care will be eligible to receive up to four years of free college. 

To fund the new scholarship partnership with WSOS, up to $400,000 will be invested by the City through 2023, and the state will provide a dollar-for-dollar matching investment. Students receiving the WSOS scholarship will be eligible for up to $22,500 in financial assistance. 

The scholarship news comes on the heels of data released by the City showing strong three year college completion rates for Seattle Promise scholars, which were 37% for the 2018 cohort, a percentage exceeding the national average of 28% as reported by the National Center for Education Statistics.

While several states and a growing number of cities offer tuition free community college to eligible students, the Seattle Promise program is distinguished by its expansiveness. Many programs require that students meet income and/or academic requirements; however, Seattle Promise is available to any senior graduating from a Seattle public high school who completes their application by the program deadline. In addition to receiving tuition assistance, participating students also receive wraparound support and guidance from Seattle Promise retention specialists.

A graphic describes how the Seattle Promise scholar works. Seattle Promise provides up to two years or 90 credits or up to your first degree, whichever comes first, of free tuition at North Seattle College, Seattle Central College, or South Seattle College. Federal, state, city, and private dollars are applied to fund tuition costs and provide wraparound support to ensure you have what you need to succeed in college.
(Credit: Seattle Promise)

For income eligible students, an equity scholarship is also available to help with costs of college attendance not captured by tuition like books, food, childcare, and transportation. During the 2020-2021 school year, 22% of Seattle Promise scholars received the equity scholarship, and 85% of those recipients identified as people of color.

The number of equity scholarship recipients, however, has increased significantly this 2021/2022 academic year. Using Covid recovery funds distributed by the Federal government and approved by the City Council, Seattle Promise has been expanded to students whose expected family contribution (EFC) is $5,000, which is in alignment with Federal Pell grants. It has doubled the amount of the equity scholarship from $500 per quarter to $1,000 per quarter, or a total of $3,000 in annual assistance.

Federal funding is also being used to pay for program reentry for the nearly 500 students who withdrew from Seattle Promise during the pandemic.

“Despite their best efforts many students put their goals on hold to take care of immediate personal and family needs that were beyond their control,” said Kendy Trinh, Seattle Promise Retention Specialist. “I’m happy to see them get a second chance to re-enter Seattle Promise and pursue the career goals they’ve been longing to achieve.” 

A photo of a racially diverse group of adults in professional attire waving and smiling.
Outreach specialists at Seattle public high schools help students navigate the Seattle Promise application process. (Credit: Seattle Promise )

To inform its decision of whether to use the Covid recovery funds to support the Seattle Promise program, the City used data from a Racial Equity Toolkit that found the spending would promote college retention and persistence among the program’s most vulnerable students, including students belonging to communities of color impacted by the pandemic.

As a whole, the Seattle Promise scholar cohort is racially and ethnically diverse. Looking at the fall 2020 numbers, which included more than 830 students, 58% identified as students of color and 35% as the first in their families to attend college.

For Amy Le, who is currently a second year student at Seattle Central College and a Seattle Promise Scholar, the choice was clear when it came time for her to apply for college. By enrolling in Seattle Promise, Le knew that she wouldn’t have to impose the cost of college on her hardworking parents, who had always emphasized the importance of education to her.

“I know it sounds cliché, but I mean it with all my heart when I say the main factor that pushed me toward Seattle Promise was my family,” Le said. “I had planned on it since my junior year because I want to be independent in my own way. Seattle Promise was an easy stepping stone forward and two free years of college is a nice deal.”

For Seattle Promise scholars like Le, a new partnership with the University of Washington will also make it easier to move forward toward obtaining a four year degree. The new UW program, which will serve about 80 students annually and has also been paid for with federal Covid recovery funds, will provide dedicated staff assistance for the transfer process, access to credit-bearing coursework at the UW prior to transferring, and mentorship for students after they enroll at the UW.

Red Square at the UW, where some Promise scholars end up transferring after finishing two years of free community college. (Doug Trumm)

Overall, Le has been really pleased with her experience as a Seattle Promise scholar, which she says has helped her to meet people from different backgrounds and cultures. “I know that my education is going to bring me far, and I’m going to live a life I paid for myself,” Le said. “It’s a great program and really vital to students from low-income households.”

According to the City, the question of where future funding will come from is the biggest challenge facing Seattle Promise. There are currently no funds lined up to replace the additional funding that has been provided by the federal Covid recovery efforts, and the entire program’s future is contingent on voter approval of the next Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise Levy in 2025. Based on the levy’s decisive 69% win in 2018, renewal seems likely.

At this time, Seattle Promise is only open to graduating seniors; however, an updated 2025 Levy may expand eligibility to more prospective students, including nontraditional high school graduates who have obtained their GED.

For prospective Seattle Public School graduates interested in enrolling in Seattle Promise in fall 2022, applications are due February 1st, 2022.

Article Author

Natalie Bicknell Argerious (she/her) is a reporter and podcast host at The Urbanist. She previously served as managing editor. A passionate urban explorer since childhood, she loves learning how to make cities more inclusive, vibrant, and environmentally resilient. You can often find her wandering around Seattle's Central District and Capitol Hill with her dogs and cat. Email her at natalie [at] theurbanist [dot] org.