Making the Case for Free Community College in Washington

A high-school diploma just ain’t what it used to be.

Carmen Berrysmith, a 19-year-old from a blue-collar West Seattle family, is a freshman enrolled in South Seattle College. She currently has a 3.77 grade-point average and wants to eventually transfer to the University of Washington to major in social work.

Berrysmith is attending her first year at the school free thanks to a program in place at the college since 2008 that waives tuition for freshmen who graduated from Rainier Beach, Chief Sealth, or Cleveland high schools (to soon be expanded to West Seattle High School as well). To Berrysmith, the free-tuition program is critical for her pursuit of higher education.

“Would I be in college without this scholarship happening?” Berrysmith says. “The answer is ‘no.’ ”

Two Seattle Democrats—state Sens. Pramila Jayapal and David Frockt—are working on a proposal that would ask the Washington legislature to replicate South Seattle College’s program across the state. While the proposal, still being drafted, may face a steep climb once introduced, it will add Washington to a national conversation about what the government owes students in terms of education and job training in the 21st century, given the high-school diploma’s diminished clout.

A 2013 report by the Washington State Board of Community & Technical Colleges and the Washington Student Achievement Council noted that from 2009 to 2011, people with only a high-school diploma earned an average of $30,393 annually with an unemployment rate of 11 percent. Meanwhile, community- and technical-college graduates earned an average of $40,424 a year with an 8 percent unemployment rate during that period.

The report also found that the demand for skills with associate degrees will increase dramatically in the next few years. Washington’s manufacturing workforce will grow, and 65 percent of those jobs in 2020 will require associate or technical degrees, the report says.

“The high-school diploma is not considered preparation for today’s economy,” says Rich Cummins, president of Columbia Basin College in Pasco, who supports Jayapal and Frockt’s efforts.

The problem, of course, is funding. Making all community college in the state free would carry a hefty price tag, though its size would depend on whether the legislation restricts discounted tuition to, say, students right out of high school or in certain income brackets. Those specifics should come to light when Frockt and Jayapal introduce their bill later this month.

Republican leaders in the Senate, who would need to sign off on the plan, are already sounding skeptical.

“The problem I see is we have no idea of what the costs would be,” says Sen. Barbara Bailey (R-Oak Harbor), chairwoman of the Senate’s Higher Education Committee. So far, she and Frockt have spoken once briefly about the idea.

“The will is there. The excitement is there. The passion is there. But without the funding . . . it’s kinda like kissing your sister,” says Gene Colin, board chairman of the South Seattle College Foundation.

Republicans and Democrats were able to resolve their differences to cut tuition last year. In the 2015 session, Republicans pushed hard for a 25 percent tuition cut for state universities, community colleges, and technical schools. The Democrats opposed cutting tuition because the cuts would cost more than $300 million with no revenue sources identified. Ultimately, the two sides compromised on a 5 percent cut across the board in 2015–16. In two years, the University of Washington’s and Washington State University’s cuts would grow to a cumulative 15 percent. At the same time, the cumulative tuition cuts at Evergreen State College, Western Washington University, Central Washington University, and Eastern Washington University would grow to 20 percent. Community colleges would not see further cuts under the 2015 legislation.

Bailey says she wants to see how the next round of these tuition cuts work out while mulling Frockt’s and Jayapal’s idea. She says Washington already has good financial-aid programs for community-college students.

The bottom line is that politics and budget crunches could affect this proposal’s chance, especially since Democrats and Republicans are expected to debate major property-tax changes in the 2016 session in order to comply with a 2012 Washington Supreme Court ruling to improve teacher/student ratios in grades K-3. That effort is expected to involve a few billion dollars.

Another potential pitfall: 2016 is an election year, and the 2016 session is supposed to last only 60 days. Legislators are reluctant to tackle anything tax-oriented in an election year. And judging by its past record, the legislature usually cannot resolve any major budget disputes in just 60 days.

Washington won’t be the first state to consider some form of free tuition for community-college students. Oregon and Tennessee both have started programs that offer significant tuition support for community-college students who meet certain requirements. At the national level, President Barack Obama last year proposed a program of free tuition for the first two years of college for students who graduate from high school with a GPA of at least 2.5 and a family income of less than $200,000. Bills were introduced in Congress this summer and are still early in the committee stages. The proposal’s estimated cost is $60 billion across 10 years.

At least one constituency in Washington stands strongly in favor of Frockt and Jayapal’s community-college plan: community-college students.

“Oh my God, yeah, I wish it were free,” says Kitty Slocum, a 22-year-old environmental sciences student at Seattle Central College on Capitol Hill. She works full-time and goes to school full-time, which is exhausting but the only way she can afford it. “People don’t take you seriously if you don’t have a degree. Because I have to work so much, my anxiety is through the roof. I feel like it consumes my entire life.”

Kaitlin Odoughty, a 25-year-old student in social and human services at Seattle Central, is also all for the idea of free community college. She goes to community college because it’s more affordable than a university. “Education is not something you should have to struggle paying for,” she says.

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