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Durkan’s Seattle Promise would make college universal for city’s students

(Image: Seattle Central)

The opportunity for two years of post-high school education is set to be become universal in the city under the Seattle Promise college tuition program to be fully unveiled by Mayor Jenny Durkan Monday night at the Central District’s Garfield High School.

Currently, the privately funded 13th Year Promise program offers graduates of Cleveland, Chief Sealth, and Rainier Beach high schools one year of free tuition (45 credits) at South Seattle College. All graduates are eligible for the program, regardless of academic record or income level. The program also offers the students support in college readiness, which begins during their senior year of high school.

“Seattle’s young people are strong, smart and deserve every opportunity to chase their dreams,” Durkan said in a statement on the plan, calling it “our progressive values made real.”

“We must remove barriers and make sure more of today’s and tomorrow’s jobs go to our kids,” Durkan said.

Durkan’s plan expands the program to include graduates of Garfield, Ingraham, and West Seattle high Schools. These students will be able to matriculate at the branch of state community college closest to them. Garfield students, for example, will be able to go to Capitol Hill’s Seattle Central. As with the existing program, it will be open to any student, regardless of academic record or income level. Students who are undocumented will also be permitted to enroll.

The program will also expand to a second year. Students enrolled in the 13th year promise this year will be eligible for a 14th year (a total of 90 credits).

The program won’t stop there. Durkan plans to continue scaling up the program until every public high school graduate in Seattle is eligible.

Students will be able to study whatever they like at the colleges, earning certifications and credentials, not just credits toward a bachelor’s degree.

Durkan announced the program in last week’s State of the City address.

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Durkan is selling the program as necessary to allow young people to compete in the work force. The expanding program started to take shape in November, when Durkan signed an executive order giving city staffers 180 days to develop a framework for it. In that order, she pointed to a study which said that by 2020, 70% of jobs in the state will require some post-secondary education.

She also calls it part of a long-term strategy to help deal with affordability and income disparity by helping students establish a base for greater economic success. The executive order noted that of the roughly 500 students who have participated in the 13th year program, about half said they would not have enrolled without it.

The program will work with the existing Running Start program in Seattle High schools. Under that program, high school students can enroll in classes in the community college, and have the credits count as both high school and college credit. Any credits earned in Running Start will not count toward the 90 credits a student could earn through Seattle’s Promise.

The potential costs of the program are difficult to pin down. There are currently 117 students enrolled in the 13th year program, according to Stephanie Formas, Durkan’s communications director. Depending on how many of them opt to go on to a 14th year, it could cost between $140,000 and $210,000. Adding the 13th year at three more high schools will likely cost between $240,000 and $645,000, Formas said.

Durkan plans to fund this through the recently imposed tax on sweetened beverages. In the longer term, the city may include funding for the program into the Families and Education Levy or the Preschool Levy.

The city funding will be “last dollar” meaning if a student has a scholarship which covers a portion of their tuition, the city would only pay for the portion not already funded. The program only covers tuition, though Formas said they are looking at was to find private donations to help with other expenses such as books.

Durkan will discuss the Seattle’s Promise program at 5:30 PM Monday night at Garfield High School.

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