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Performance Spotlight: Equity Enhancements Promote College Success for Seattle Promise Scholars Impacted by COVID-19

About Seattle Promise:

Seattle Promise is a voter-approved Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise (FEPP) Levy-funded college success program provided in partnership by the Department of Education and Early Learning (DEEL), Seattle Colleges, and Seattle Public Schools. The program offers Seattle public school graduates two years (or 90 credits) of free tuition at any of the three Seattle Colleges campuses, equity scholarships for income-eligible scholars, and additional support toward a certificate, credential, degree, or transfer to a four-year university.

In 2021, the Seattle City Council approved legislation to authorize the use of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to implement a suite of “equity enhancements” to the Seattle Promise program at Seattle Colleges as part of the City’s COVID-19 recovery plan. Seattle Promise program enhancements focused on increasing resources and support to students furthest from educational justice as they pursue their degrees.

Three years after these equity enhancements were introduced, Promise scholars are thriving and data demonstrates the impact investments have had to increase the number of students of color, first-generation, and low-income students enrolled, persisting, and succeeding at Seattle Colleges. For a deeper dive into performance data about ARPA-funded Seattle Promise equity enhancements, check out the 2023 Seattle Rescue Plan Report (PDF).

As we take a moment to reflect on the many ways that local scholars are benefitting from these additional resources and supports, the Seattle Department of Education and Early Learning (DEEL) is excited to share a reminder that Seattle Promise applications for the fall 2024 cohort are open through February 16, 2024. All Seattle public school graduating seniors are eligible to apply.  

Learn more at:

A group of young women gathered around a table, picking up papers
Incoming Seattle Promise scholars receive information during a resource fair for 2023 Summer Bridge college orientation at South Seattle College. Photo courtesy of Seattle Colleges.

Scholars Shine with Equity Enhancements   

The COVID-19 pandemic created a unique set of challenges that impacted the ways that students—especially students of color, first-generation and low-income students—navigate access to higher education, including participation and rates of success in the Seattle Promise program. During the pandemic, many Promise scholars lost eligibility for the program because they struggled to fulfill quarterly program requirements, most notably maintaining Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP). Opportunity gaps were also observed, with cohort 2019 Black and Latinx scholars experiencing disproportionately lower 2-year retention and 3-year completion rates than their white and Asian Seattle Promise peers.

To address these disparities, and in response to students’ feedback and recommendations outlined in the 2019-20 Racial Equity Tool kit, federal funding from the American Rescue Plan Act partially funded the implementation of equity enhancements. Equity enhancements refer to a suite of supportive programs implemented between fall 2021 and fall 2022 funded with $10.7 million in both federal and municipal dollars to keep Seattle public high school graduates moving toward their college and career goals despite pandemic pressures. These programs reached full implementation and stabilization into 2022-23. The voter-approved Families, Education, Preschool, and Promise (FEPP) Levy will sustain this critical investment as part of Mayor Bruce Harrell’s 2023-24 budget.

At the onset of COVID-19, in spring 2020, the Seattle Promise third quarter retention rate (the number of students who re-enroll) was at its highest with 73% of the 2019-20 cohort retained (six percent higher than the 2018-2019 cohort). Even though Promise saw record enrollment during the pandemic, the shift to remote learning proved challenging for students. In the 2019-20 school year, approximately 550 scholars exited the program with many citing pandemic-related causes. College students were some of the last to return to in-person learning, deeply impacting their trajectory. 

Student feedback and program data collected during both equity and process evaluations reported 73% of scholars surveyed as needing additional supports. The most common supports cited were related to academic and career planning and academic progress, with nearly a quarter citing need for more wraparound supports. Responding to student requests, a series of equity enhancements were developed to address student retention, completion, and success, including: 

  • Additional resources increasing college access, retention, and completion:
    • Expanded equity scholarships that pay housing, food, and other college costs; 
    • Flexible part-time and re-entry policies; and 
    • Up to one year of additional time to complete certificates, credentials, or degrees.  
  • Academic supports: Supplemental tutoring in high school that reduces the need for developmental coursework in college. These supports provide students the ability to fully participate in their Seattle College experience with college-level courses that apply towards a degree, credential, or certificate attainment. 
  • New transfer pathways: Priority access to the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship and Path to UW programs. Launched in Winter 2021, the Path to UW program provides transfer support, community, and academic preparation experiences to Seattle Promise students through a dedicated transfer advisor, workshops, and credit-bearing, tuition-free summer seminars taught by University of Washington Seattle (UW) faculty.
  • Career exploration & preparation: Priority access to paid jobs training, college, and career exploration opportunities through the Seattle Youth Employment Program.

New equity enhancements operate as a multilayered set of wraparound supports provided in addition to existing scholarships and resources available to Promise scholars. Although the introduction of improvements has been felt, there is still room for greater program growth and improvement given, for example, that students have identified factors such as emotional stress as contributing to their consideration of discontinuing coursework and leaving Seattle Promise. Toward the end of the 21-22 school year, DEEL, Seattle Colleges, and Seattle Public Schools developed the Seattle Promise Learning Collaborative (“the collaborative”) with a central focus to co-identify strategies to improve student success and racial equity.  

A young woman speaking from her desk in a Seattle Colleges classroom
At Summer Bridge, Promise scholars meet their instructors and peers, and receive resources to help them succeed in their college journey. Photo courtesy of Seattle Colleges.  

Promising Results from Innovative Approaches

Seattle Promise reports a 38% 3-year completion rate for cohort 2018 and 31% for cohort 2019. This is about 16% higher than non-Promise cohort 2019 students enrolled in Seattle Colleges District. (Non-Promise cohort 2019 comparison group refers to all first-time students enrolling in a transfer program in Seattle Colleges District in 2019).

During the 2021-22 school year, scholars of cohorts 2019 and 2020 became eligible for the re-entry pathway. In the following 2022-23 school year, re-entry expanded to include all cohorts. Preliminary data supports the implementation of re-entry is positively impacting known race-based retention and completion gaps at Seattle Promise.

  • Enhancements continue to support students furthest from educational justice and students of color. 
  • Over 70% of students who re-entered Fall 2021 identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).
  • As of Fall 2022, about 290 students from cohorts 2020, 2021, and 2022 utilized the re-entry pathway with 68% (nearly 200 students) identifying as BIPOC. 
  • Since the 2021-22 school year, more than 60% of BIPOC scholars receive an equity scholarship.

“Many students have been in a tough position when something happened and they needed more funds to support themselves. Not long ago, my laptop broke during midterm season and I didn’t have the funds to replace it. The equity scholarship helped me repair my laptop to continue my studies. It also helped me pay for supplies, books, and anything else I needed to continue school. I’m grateful it was there.”

-Anisa Mohamed, second-year Seattle Promise scholar at South Seattle College

What’s Next?

Results to date are promising, and DEEL and Seattle Colleges continue to monitor student equity enhancement outcomes with both DEEL-led and external evaluations in progress or underway for 2023-25. These evaluations are intended to generate a more nuanced understanding of the full implications of equity enhancements as more pandemic-impacted students opt for a third year and re-enter the program. Furthermore, Seattle Colleges outreach staff continue connecting with former Promise scholars to inform them of their options for continuing their post-secondary journey. This ongoing work is generating a positive impact program-wide and is essential to the success of past, present and future Seattle Promise scholars.   

Follow @SeattleDEEL on X/Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, and check out our Whats’ the DEEL? blog to stay up to date on investments and opportunities in support of Seattle youth, families, and partners. 

Finally, please note that current Seattle public high school seniors have until February 16, 2024 to complete the Seattle Promise application. Apply today at

The Seattle Department of Education and Early Learning’s mission is to transform the lives of Seattle children, youth, and families through strategic investments in education.