We Can Make Free Community College a Reality for Every Seattle Public High School Graduate

For more than a decade, progressive Democrats have called for addressing the affordability barriers that keep many young Americans from attending college. It is one critical way we need to address surging inequality in our society.

As Bernie Sanders wrote regarding his free tuition proposal, “We live in a highly competitive, global economy, and if our economy is to be strong, we need the best-educated workforce in the world. We won’t achieve that if, every year, hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college while millions more leave school deeply in debt. ” As Sanders also noted, college tuition is free in Germany, even for citizens of other countries. It’s also free in Denmark, Norway Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Iceland, and Mexico.

Unfortunately, the national push for free tuition died with President Trump’s election. Instead, Trump is now pushing policies that will make wealth inequality even worse and do nothing to solve the affordability pinch that so many Americans, particularly younger Americans, are feeling.

The lesson for us is clear. We cannot wait. If we want to implement bold progressive ideas to address social and economic inequality and make our city more affordable, we are going to have to act on our own, at the local level.

That is why, if I am elected Seattle’s next mayor, I will implement a new program that provides every Seattle public school graduate two years of free tuition to attend one of our community or technical colleges. I call it the “Seattle Promise,” because it’s a promise to the next generation that we will open that door for them. This Promise is the first of a series of additional boldly progressive — and attainable — programs that will make Seattle more equitable that I will be announcing over the next several weeks, and that I commit to implementing in my first year in office.

You can add your name in support of this plan here. We’d love to have you.

For most of us, the two most important investments we will make are in a college degree and a home. Since American soldiers returned home from WWII and went to college on the G.I. Bill, a higher education has become the surest route to sustained earnings and the opportunity to build wealth. Higher education helped build our middle class, and created an increasingly fair and equitable society.

Unfortunately, in recent decades we’ve gone backwards as a country. More and more Americans have been denied this pathway to opportunity, and this is particularly true for communities of color. Today, for too many families and young people in Seattle, this investment in the future — a college education — is out of reach.

One of the most important keys to economic empowerment is building opportunity through education. The good news is, we likely have more than enough existing resources to ensure students from all economic backgrounds, and from every neighborhood in Seattle, have the chance to earn a credential, certificate or degree. This remains one key path for entering and staying in the middle class and getting a good, family wage job. And, as important, our students must be able to open this door to opportunity without taking on crushing student loan debt.

Under my “Seattle Promise” proposal, developed in consultation with local education experts, every Seattle kid graduating from high school will know they have a debt-free route to enter the workforce career-ready or to pursue further studies at four-year colleges and universities. This will be good for them, of course, but it will be great for Seattle. It will help channel the prosperity of our thriving economy back into our neighborhoods and let us start filling thousands of well-paid local job openings with our home-grown talent. It will help make Seattle affordable again for thousands of young people in danger of being forced out of our city.

Multiple studies have found that first year after high school — the ‘13th year’ — is a true tipping point for a student to continue their education and get a strong family-wage job down the road. But in 2015 alone, more than 1,000 students of color and low-income students in Seattle did not continue on to higher education.

Seattle Promise creates a new and critical path for these students to community or technical college — and the professional certificates and four-year degrees that it can lead to. It would provide full tuition and grants to cover any student that graduates from Seattle Public Schools each year.

Recognizing that students need support to make this shift, Seattle Promise would also provide trained staff to support students with counseling and advising to help transition them from high school to college. In addition, we will work with other public and private resources to create a fund to provide stipends for books, fees, and Orca cards, to eliminate these other real barriers for students. We will also work to tie the educational opportunities to job opportunities (more on that later!).

Some might say this plan sounds too ambitious or unrealistic. But this model is already working here in our city. Since it began in 2008, South Seattle College’s “13th Year Promise Scholarship” pilot program has helped more than 500 graduates from Seattle Public Schools enroll at the college. Through the scholarship, students receive not just a full year scholarship, but a whole suite of support services — from placement test workshops to campus field trips aimed to help them thrive during the transition from high school to college.

Our city should expand and build upon the success of this program, to offer not just one but two years of free community college, and we should make this offer to every Seattle graduate. I’ve done my homework on this. The Seattle Promise will benefit around 700 young people a year who otherwise might not continue their education, but fully funding this effort will cost around $7 million per year — or less than half the funding generated by the new soda tax, revenues that are supposed to go to education.

Making the “Seattle Promise” real will require strong collaboration with a range of stakeholders, including the Seattle Public Schools, the Seattle City Council, parents and community groups. But the proposal has been made, and I am committed to rolling up my sleeves and getting it done next year.

The next Mayor will oversee the next Families and Education Levy and be a partner with a new superintendent. The city is making critical investments in early learning, and we must align all of these efforts. A focus on Seattle’s children from cradle through college is the key.

Lowering the barriers to college for Seattle’s high school graduates is just one part of my comprehensive strategy of addressing affordability, and I’ll be outlining more key components of my Affordability Agenda to address this crisis and the inequities facing our city soon. We also know that the achievement gap in our schools for students of color is real, systemic and deeply inequitable. It creates an opportunity chasm before kids even get started and we will have a range of proposals to attack it.

Seattle Promise will put more students on the critical pathway for opportunity. I recently met with community leaders and youth in Rainier Beach, who shared with me their hopes and frustrations on a range of issues. Attendees, including members of the Rainier Beach Action Coalition, South East Effective Development and the Boys and Girls Club, have worked tirelessly to make Rainier Beach “A Beautiful Safe Place for Youth.” One thing they told me was that we need to make our young students a promise: we will support you and if you work hard we will make sure your effort leads to opportunity.

I agree. We owe every kid in Seattle at least that much. The future of these students is worth fighting for. And if I have the honor to serve as Seattle’s next mayor, I promise it’s a fight I am ready to take on.