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Originally published January 14, 2011 at 9:43 PM | Page modified January 14, 2011 at 9:43 PM

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College expands program of free tuition

A scholarship program that provides one year's free tuition at South Seattle Community College has expanded to include graduating seniors at Chief Sealth High School.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Imara Johnson has no money to pay for college. The 18-year-old high-school senior, who lives on her own on Capitol Hill, planned to scrape her way through a four-year university on scholarships and loans.

Now Johnson — and every other graduating senior at Chief Sealth International High School — has another option: one tuition-free year at South Seattle Community College (SSCC). The college's president announced the newly expanded scholarship program Friday to Chief Sealth's class of 2011.

The seniors had gathered in the high school's auditorium Friday morning for a mystery assembly.

"I thought we were going to get in trouble or something," said Emily Anderson, 17. "It was a really huge relief actually. Even though I am applying to universities, it was really nice to know that if all else fails ... I can still get a higher education after graduation."

The 13th Year Promise Scholarship is the first of its kind in Washington state, South Seattle Community College spokeswoman Candace Oehler said. It kicked off in 2008 with graduates from Cleveland High School and formally added Chief Sealth at the end of 2010.

The South Seattle Community College Foundation, a group of business and community leaders with assets of more than $10 million, committed to funding this scholarship indefinitely, according to Elizabeth Pluhta, the foundation's executive director.

"I don't see an end date," said Pluhta, who hopes to one day expand the program across the state.

The foundation uses financial-aid grants and private philanthropic gifts to pay for the program. The tuition for an academic year at SSCC is $2,628.

The one-year cutoff is based on research from the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges that shows someone with a high-school diploma and one year of college earns 28 percent more money yearly than someone with just a high-school diploma, according to Gary Oertli, SSCC's president.

The scholarship program also includes support services throughout the students' academic career, starting before they take a class at the college. Among other services, it includes a summer-bridge program that offers a rundown on the SSCC campus and encourages affirmations and "mental skills," Oehler said.

Those services have continually developed since the 13th Year Promise Scholarship program began. This year the program added a staff member who exclusively works with the scholarship students.

"He's been found to be really personable, really knowledgeable," said Oehler. "The kids relate really well to him."

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The scholarship aims to increase access to higher education particularly for minorities, low-income students and first-generation college students. Sixty-three percent of Sealth's students are in the free and reduced-price lunch program and 70 percent are minorities.

Johnson will be the first in her family to attend college. She wants eventually to go to a four-year university to study aerospace-science engineering, and is hoping for a full ride to Tuskegee University in Alabama.

"But I think it's a very good idea for me to get a little practice with community college," Johnson said.

Olivia Bobrowsky: 206-464-3195 or obobrowsky@seattletimes.com

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