Although Washington state’s Running Start program, which pays tuition for high school juniors and seniors taking community college classes, is now nearly 30 years old, it has expanded massively at Bellevue College in just the past few years. There were 3,297 Running Start students enrolled as of Fall quarter, over 10% of the total student population. That’s growth of 84% just since the Fall of 2016. Most of these students come from nearby school districts, like Issaquah, Lake Washington, Bellevue, and Renton. However, with learning being fully online, more Running Start students from other parts of Washington have joined the college.
Accommodating every district is a challenge: most Running Start students go to college full time, and fulfil their high school graduation requirements with equivalent college classes. This means that sections of English 101, History 147, and Health 250, which most high schools require, are often majority Running Start. On the other hand, Bellevue’s two dedicated Running Start advisors often have to find the correct classes to fulfil the more unusual graduation requirements individual districts and schools have.
With the growth in this student population, there have been a number of other issues. Although Running Start covers tuition, students are on the hook for class fees and textbooks, which can amount to hundreds of dollars per quarter, a major expense for families struggling because of the economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instructors and students often have difficulty with the different expectations of college, where students have to learn to advocate for themselves without their parents being involved. When the program was smaller, it was easier for advisors to check in on individual students and help everyone succeed. Even with these growing pains, the program has been undeniably successful. Each quarter, no more than 10% of Running Start students achieve a GPA below 2.0, and every year, the program gives hundreds of motivated students the chance to get an early associates degree, or start on their bachelor’s degree, catapulting them ahead in their career paths.