By Lornet Turnbull
Special to The Medium
As president of Seattle Central College, Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange believes partnering with historically Black colleges and universities gives community college graduates — especially those of color — options for earning four-year degrees some may not have considered.
Last year, she signed agreements with Wilberforce University in Ohio and Southern University in Louisiana that guarantee seamless transfer to the four-year schools for Seattle Colleges’ graduates.
Now the pipeline created by that partnership will be bolstered by a new arrangement: an agreement between the city of Seattle, Seattle Public Schools and Seattle Colleges that paves the way for Seattle high school graduates to get two years’ tuition-free education at a Seattle College.
The Seattle Promise Program expands on an existing program called the 13th Year Promise Scholarship, which currently provides one year’s free tuition at Seattle Colleges for students from Cleveland, Rainier Beach and Chief Sealth International high schools.
The new initiative, which Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced earlier this month, will add a second year of free tuition and expand the program to eventually include all Seattle public high schools.
Seattle Promise, makes the colleges’ transfer agreement with HBCUs, “even more appealing for families — especially those whose children might aspire to attend an HBCU,” Edwards Lange said.
They can “attend a Seattle College, spend their first two years and then once they are finished are guaranteed admission to those HBCUs,” she said.
This year’s Seattle College graduates will be the first ones eligible to do so.
Durkan called the partnership with Seattle colleges and Seattle Public Schools a critical step to “creating an affordable future for the next generation.”
“Barriers to college often span generations, and for too long have held back communities of color, immigrants, and refugees,” she said. “Seattle Promise will open doors and change the lives of our young people by creating true economic opportunity for Seattle students.”
Each year, about 65 percent of seniors from Chief Sealth International, Cleveland and Rainier Beach high schools apply for the 13th Year Promise. Half of them said they would not have attended college if not for the program.
In this economy, post-secondary credentials have become necessary for obtaining living-wage jobs. And by 2020, 70 percent of all jobs in Washington State will require some post-secondary education, according to a report by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.
But the mayor’s office cited a study by the Washington Roundtable that shows that only 31 percent of Washington’s high school students go on to attain post-secondary credentials by the age of 26.
Washington State ranks 47th in the nation for college participation by age 19. Some 41 percent of Seattle’s high school class of 2015 either did not attend college or dropped out after their first year. In addition, the report found that “historically underserved students of color (Black, Hispanic, Native American, and Pacific Islander) attend college at a rate of 17 percentage points lower than White, Asian, and Multiracial students.”
Edwards Lange said she had read about a transfer agreement between HBCUs and California Community Colleges around the same time she was tapped to become interim president at Seattle Central three years ago. She grew excited by the prospect of bringing something similar to Seattle.
A higher education capacity study that the Gates Foundation funded around that time looked at four-year degree production and the jobs that are being projected for our region, she said. The study found that while there was sufficient capacity in the community colleges for producing AA degrees, capacity at four-year colleges left them with limited options for transferring.
According to a report by Teachers College at Columbia University, while 80 percent of community college graduates intend to earn a four-year degree, only about a quarter transfer to a four-year college within five years of graduating. And just 17 percent earn a bachelor degree within the next six years.
And even when they successfully transfer, Edwards Lange said, many lose credits in the process, requiring them to repeat classes that don’t fit course requirements at the institution they are transferring to.
What the Gates study recommended, she said, “is that we actually provide more opportunities for students, especially in places like the Pacific Northwest and in high-demand fields such as information technology and the applied sciences.”
She pointed out that many Fortune 500 companies looking to diversity their workplaces often recruit at HBCUs.
Under the current agreements with Southern University, a 6,500-student campus in Baton Rouge and Wilberforce, which enrolls 500 students in Wilberforce, Ohio, Seattle Colleges’ graduates who have obtained an AA degree are guaranteed admission as long as they have a 2.0 GPA. They will be placed on a priority list for scholarships and given priority consideration for student housing.
Edwards Lange said she’s currently negotiating agreements with other HBCUs, a process that involves a course-by-course examination to ensure that the Seattle Central’s courses fit the HBCUs’ requirements for graduation.
“We have lots of opportunity for our kids to go to those schools, have positive and affirming experiences and come back to the Northwest and be part of this burgeoning economic engine that we have here,” she said.
Edwards Lange said in creating these articulation agreements it helps to have facilitators connected to the HBCUs. In that case of Southern that person was Cleo Brooks, president of the Seattle Chapter of the Seattle-Puget Sound Southern University Alumni Association.
Brooks, who grew up in the Seattle area, graduated from Southern in 1978. Both her parents attended Southern and around their home in Bellevue there was always plenty of Jaguar memorabilia.
“My brother and I always knew that’s where we’d go,” she said.
While some students from the Pacific Northwest struggle to adjust to life on a campus where the majority of people are Black, Brooks said she never did. Her family has relatives in Louisiana, which made the transition easier, she said.
But there’s something even more important that makes the experience of going to a majority Black school unique.
“What you have at Black colleges is unwavering support — from the janitor to the president to the board of regents,” she said. “It feels like they all have an investment in your success and in many cases they not only know your name but where you came from.”
“It’s the most beautiful thing to me about the HBCU experience,” she concluded.