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caption: Speaking in a South Seattle College chemistry lab, College President Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap called the new city and state scholarship funds "an important start."
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Speaking in a South Seattle College chemistry lab, College President Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap called the new city and state scholarship funds "an important start."
Credit: Amy Radil / KUOW

Seattle expands free college program with help from state matching funds

Seattle will be the first city in Washington to receive state matching 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 Opportunity Scholarship was created a decade ago. Until now it has matched donations from businesses and philanthropies 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 matching funds, state legislators say they hope other cities will follow.

Speaking from a chemistry lab at South Seattle College Thursday, Mayor Jenny Durkan said Seattle will spend $400,000 of its federal Covid relief funds on scholarships, and that funding will be matched by the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.

The total $800,000 will allow up to 60 students in the Seattle Promise program to receive $20,200 and wraparound services to attain a four-year degree in science, technology or healthcare.

Dr. Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap is the president of South Seattle College. She said the one-time funding could kick off a more sustained effort.

“I think it’s significant because it’s an important start,” she said. “It’s an invitation to look at broadening this and it’s an initial investment. Seattle Promise started with a couple hundred students and has grown four-fold in just a few years.”

The Seattle Promise program enrolled 230 students in 2018 and has grown to 1,100 this fall. Mayor Jenny Durkan said the free community college program is one of her proudest achievements, and called Thursday’s event announcing the new scholarships “the perfect bookend to my time as mayor.”

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

“It has opened the door to Washington’s colleges and universities to students of color, to women, to people first in their family to go to college,” Smith said. “What is perhaps most noteworthy is that five years after they graduate, on average, the people who are our scholars have a salary of more than $100,000, and more than twice what their entire family had as a family income when they were a senior in high school.”

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

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

"Equitable access to college and to these STEM and healthcare jobs are the key," he said, adding that the bridge between the Seattle Promise program and the state’s Opportunity Scholarship “will strengthen the transfer pathways for four-year institutions, which we know are important avenues to ensure our scholars – especially those that are first-generation – will be successful once they enter."

Durkan said she’s hopeful that Seattle will find ways to fund the scholarships on an ongoing basis after this funding winds down in 2023.

“I wanted to make sure that we created the program," Durkan said. "It would demonstrate its success, and I think that future mayors and future city councils will say this — dollar for dollar — is one of the most important things we can do if we really believe in education justice.”