Anyone keeping an eye on the U.S. Congress senses that free community college across the country looks increasingly unlikely. While that will disappoint many people, the good news is that community college already is free in many parts of the country.
The U.S. has 116 last-dollar and 15 first-dollar community college promise programs, and those often end up making college at least tuition-free. These figures come from the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD) database of promise programs, and that doesn’t include the 17 or so statewide free community college programs.
With so many of these programs already in place, my team at the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program wanted to know: Which four-year universities are creating pathways for promise program students to attain bachelor’s degrees? What can we learn from these programs?
Our early field scan finds untapped potential. One emerging model may provide a road map for other institutions. It’s the Path to UW—a transfer partnership between the Seattle Colleges Seattle Promise program and the University of Washington Seattle campus. We think it will inspire civic leaders and higher education leaders.
The Origin Story
This partnership traces its history to 2018, when Jenny Durken, then mayor of Seattle, launched the Seattle Promise. It covers tuition for any graduate of the Seattle public schools through a last-dollar scholarship, as well as supplementary financial aid to cover nontuition expenses for the lowest-income students. It connects these scholars with retention coaches so they not only enroll but thrive and complete associate degrees.
In 2021, with financing from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan, the mayor’s office and the UW transfer team took another step. They established the Path to UW, to give the Promise students greater educational and economic opportunity. Through the new program, the transfer team wants to reach “students furthest from educational justice, including first-generation, low-income and underrepresented students,” in the words of the transfer team members, Joslin Boroughs, Cynthia Caci and Michaelann Jundt. They add, “We aim to both increase and diversify UW’s transfer student population.”
Approximately 1,500 transfer students start at the UW Seattle campus each year. The overwhelming majority—87 percent—graduate with a bachelor’s degree. By connecting the local Promise program to transfer pathways, UW can ensure that many more transfer students benefit. Path to UW includes three standout programmatic elements:
- Dedicated advising and admissions support for Promise students: The Path to UW employs a full-time adviser who works directly with Seattle Promise students through dedicated informational sessions, individualized advising and other direct communications. In addition, signature UW admissions events, such as a daylong series of seminars for prospective students, include tailored sessions for Promise students looking to transfer.
- Credit-bearing academic exploration course for prospective students: The Path to UW Academic Introduction is designed for students who have completed their first year of the Seattle Promise. This summer course is taught by UW faculty and allows students to explore majors, gain exposure to research opportunities at UW and identify classroom and extracurricular experiences that help prepare scholars for careers.
- Credit-bearing writing course for admitted students: The UW transfer team addressed a common barrier for their students: success in academic writing. The summer before transferring, Promise students admitted to UW have access to the Path to UW Academic Transition course. Faculty members from different disciplines tailor the course to their subject area, with each course designed to prepare students to meet the university’s writing expectations. At the same time, the experience builds relationships with faculty and other Promise students before the semester starts. (Promise students do not pay to enroll in either summer course, but UW does provide stipends for instructors.)
The Path to UW model uses faculty engagement to help transfer students succeed. For colleges interested in this approach, the UW transfer team shared an observation: “Faculty are really excited to engage with transfer students and are committed to the success of underrepresented, low income, and first-generation students,” the team said. Faculty “want to introduce these students to the wonder that is a big research university and help them see themselves here.”
Behind the Scenes of Innovation
The creation of Path to UW underscores the importance of professional development for transfer practitioners. Since 2018, the UW transfer team members have participated in the American Talent Initiative’s transfer community of practice. Through that group, they learned how UCLA’s Center for Community College Partnerships supports transfer students through pretransfer advising and wraparound support programming, such as the Summer Intensive Transfer Experience.
When the mayor’s office proposed closer connections between Seattle Promise and the university, the transfer team was ready with ideas. They were inspired by programming at UCLA, for example. In just a few months, they launched the Path to UW.
What does this mean for university leaders across the country who want to improve the transfer path for promise students? They can provide resources for transfer teams to exchange ideas with peers at other institutions. The University of Washington invested in professional development, and that surely will benefit hundreds more transfer students in coming years.