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Credit: Courtesy of Seattle Colleges

Seattle Colleges hoping to raise millions to boost equity and support students of color

This week, the Seattle Colleges Foundation is launching a $50 million fundraising campaign. The goal is to increase college access for more working adults and students, and to provide more support for students of color.

KUOW’s Kim Malcolm spoke with Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange, the president of Seattle Central College.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Kim Malcolm: The pandemic over the past year has been really tough on education. How has your enrollment been this past year?

Sheila Edwards Lange: In most recessions, when we have these kinds of economic downturns, community college enrollments increase as people go back to school to retrain. But what we have seen in this pandemic, and as a result of this economic downturn, is actually our students are not enrolling. This is happening across the country. Community College enrollments have dropped, particularly for African-American and Latinx men. It is very concerning.

Because we serve students who are already low-income, and they have lost many of those low-wage jobs, they're in survival mode now. That is what we are seeing on a lot of the research reports that are examining this enrollment decline. People can't really think too much about going to school when they are losing their homes and really in survival mode as a result of the pandemic.

This fundraising effort is called Equity Can't Wait. Tell us about the big picture goals that you're hoping to accomplish.

We are hoping to raise $50 million. We want to have support for students, things like wraparound services, and scholarships. We want to increase the racial diversity of our faculty. We are hoping to do some innovative things, upgrading our curriculum, and moving to more flexible learning options.

One of the things that this pandemic has really highlighted is the need for more online offerings. We are going to create a center of excellence for online community college education. And we want to strengthen capacity in our campuses. Our campuses are over 50 years old. We need to create physical infrastructure to make sure that we are providing future-facing education for our students.

Right now, students who graduate from Seattle Public Schools are entitled to two years of free tuition at one of the Seattle Colleges. I understand that part of the new fundraising effort is going to go towards direct financial assistance for students. Can you give us an example of the kind of impact that the support might make in the day-to-day life of a student?

Yes. We are so pleased to be partnering with the City of Seattle and Seattle Public Schools on the Seattle Promise. It provides tuition, but we know that the cost of attendance is way more than tuition-- student housing costs, childcare costs, transportation. We're hoping to supplement the tuition for those students who are most financially needy with additional equity scholarships.

I don't have to tell you about all the different fundraising efforts there are right now for institutes of higher education. You're chasing a lot of the same dollars. What is different about this new effort and this new vision for your college system?

We were planning for a campaign and then the pandemic hit. We were saying maybe we should delay it. Then the George Floyd murder happened and we said we can't wait to start this campaign because our students need it so much.

While others are doing campaigns, we are serving those students who are most in need. When you think about the racial diversity of the students in our colleges, that is the need we need to meet in our community. We're talking about racial equity, and how we deliver on that. We deliver on that by providing folks with an opportunity to get training that would make them eligible for living-wage jobs.

We know that the cost of living here in Seattle is so high. We also know that we have a lot of highly educated people who move to Seattle, and are qualified for many of the living wage and high wage jobs here, but our own students in Seattle are not getting trained and access to those jobs.

When you look toward the future as we emerge from this pandemic, how would you say this effort to boost equity fits into the projected job market here in Seattle and Western Washington?

As we are preparing for the economic recovery that we know will happen after this pandemic, the jobs that are projected to be available-- primarily in healthcare, and in information technology and construction—are going to require some kind of post-secondary credential.

The Seattle Colleges excel at providing those kinds of credentials and providing them to a broader range of community members. We think that we are part of the solution for bringing our region back to some kind of economic vibrancy and doing it in a more inclusive way. We're very excited about this campaign and what it's going to mean not only for our students, but for our community.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.