Free community college emerges as an issue in Seattle mayoral campaign. Will there be statewide implications?

Mayoral candidate Jenny Durkan has proposed tuition-free community college for graduates of Seattle high schools. reports,

Durkan notes that one out of four Seattle graduates do not pursue a higher degree after high school; 1/3 for students of color. Her solution is called the “Seattle Promise” plan. It is partially modeled from an existing program in Seattle called the 13th Year Promise Scholarship program. It would provide tuition for every graduate from a public Seattle high school at any community college in Washington state. Four-year universities will not be included. Durkan said that she would implement the program as soon as possible; within her first potential year as mayor.

As we’ve written, tuition-free community college has gained some political traction in recent years. As nprED recently reported,

The opportunity to go to college for free is more available than ever before. States and cities, in the last year especially, have funded programs for students to go to two-year, and in some cases, four-year, schools.

Tennessee has taken the idea one step further. Community college is already free for graduating high school students. Now Tennessee is first state in the country to offer community college — free of charge — to almost any adult.

In January, 2016, the idea emerged in Olympia, but didn’t go anywhere. Our post on the proposal links to some still-timely assessments of the pros and cons of plan. See also this post.

Costs are usually a concern, but the story says Durkan believes they would be manageable.

Durkan estimates that the program will cost between $4.3 – 5 million in its first year. It will rise to $7 million after that. Durkan further promotes that Seattle can implement such a program without finding new revenue sources.


“The beauty of this program is for the relatively small amount of money we are investing from this city, the return for our kids is tremendous,” she said.

“It’s not just covering tuition and class fees,” Durkan said. “A critical component of this is we will have advisers and mentors for kids … to help them work through their college applications and financial aid forms. And when they get to college, there will be someone to advise them on what classes to take.”

Publicola has more on the funding question.

Durkan promises no new revenue and wants to live within the city budget’s means. That could include revenue from the soda tax, 2018 families and education levy, or Sound Transit 3′s $518 million reserves for education, Durkan said. 

And this response from her opponent:

Mayoral candidate Cary Moon issued a statement Monday that said Durkan’s proposal wasn’t enough and did call for “new revenue for higher education” using a statewide tax on capital gains—politically that’s a challenge, and not something that would likely happen anytime soon in the Legislature.

We suspect that we’ll hear much more about this in the coming weeks. And possibly again in January in Olympia.