Seattle expands free college program with help from state matching funds

Seattle will be the first city in Washington to receive similar state funds for college scholarships. The scholarships will assist students in the Seattle Promise program, which already provides two years of free community college to any public high school graduate in the city.

The Washington State Scholarship for Opportunities was established a decade ago. So far, it has made matching donations from businesses and charities that wanted to help expand and diversify the state’s STEM workforce. While Seattle is the first municipality to put up scholarship money and receive the corresponding money, state lawmakers say they hope other cities will follow suit.

Mayor Jenny Durkan of a chemistry lab at South Seattle College spoke Thursday, he said Seattle will spend $400,000 in federal COVID-19 relief money on scholarships, and that funding will be matched by the state’s scholarship program.

A total of $800,000 will allow up to 60 students in the Seattle program to promise $20,200 and comprehensive services toward a four-year degree in science, technology, or health care.

Dr. Rosie Remando Charyonsap is president of Southern Seattle College. She said one-time funding could start more sustainable efforts.

“I think it’s important because it’s an important start,” she said. It is an invitation to consider expanding this and it is an initial investment. The Seattle Promise started with a few hundred students and has grown to four times as much in a few years.”

The Seattle Promise program enrolled 230 students in 2018 and grew to 1,100 students this fall. Mayor Jenny Durkan said the free community college program is one of her most proud accomplishments, calling Thursday’s event to announce the new scholarships “the perfect end to my time as mayor.”

Microsoft President Brad Smith chairs the Washington State Scholarship for Opportunities. He said 5,000 students across the state have already graduated from college as opportunity scholars.

“It opened the door for Washington colleges and universities to students of color, to women, and to people first in their families to attend college,” Smith said. “Perhaps it is remarkable that five years after their graduation, on average, our scholars earn a salary in excess of $100,000, more than twice what their entire family was earning in household income when they were high school seniors.”

The program includes support for its students including mentorship and business training.

Duane Chappelle is the director of the city’s Department of Education and Early Learning.

“Equal access to college, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs and health care is key,” he said, adding that the bridge between the Seattle Promise program and the state scholarship “will enhance conversion paths for four-year institutions, which we know are important ways to ensure the success of our scholars — Especially those of the first generation – once they get in.”

Durkan said she hopes Seattle will find ways to fund scholarships on an ongoing basis after that funding ends in 2023.

“I wanted to make sure we built the program,” Durkan said. “It will prove successful, and I think future mayors and future city councils will say that this — dollar for dollar — is one of the most important things we can do if we really believe in educational justice.”

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