If those college-prep classes feel a little emptier in high school these days, it's because they are. About 10 percent of the students aren't there.
Those 17,000 juniors and seniors aren't truant. They're enrolled at the local community college, getting a jump-start on earning college credit before high school graduation even rolls around.
That's about how many high school students the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges estimates are enrolled in Running Start, the early entrance program that lets qualifying juniors and seniors earn college and high school credit at the same time and without paying anything. Enrollment has grown steadily since the program's launch in 1990 -- so much so that community college officials say it's costing them almost $35 million a year to educate those extra high school students.
Success has its price, and the community colleges will ask the Legislature for $35 million more over five years -- specifically $7 million each year.
"Over time, the Running Start program has grown successfully and the reimbursement the colleges get has stayed the same, while inflation has steadily grown," said Suzy Ames, spokeswoman for the state community college board.
Community colleges are entitled to 70 percent of the money earmarked for each Running Start student, Ames said. But with more students wanting to start college early, the colleges have to add classes, faculty and staff to accommodate them.
The $35 million figure is little more than "budget dust," said Dan Steel, a spokesman for the Washington State School Director's Association. Steel said advanced placement programs in high schools are hurting for funding, too, and K-12 educators might end up double-teaming the issue in Olympia next year.
"The point is, both systems on both sides of the fence probably aren't getting as much as they need to," he said. "But I do agree that Running Start on the college side costs money."
The state board has been crunching numbers to make its case, and the board estimates that the program saved taxpayers about $48 million during the last academic year by shaving two years off Running Start students' public educations. Students and their parents saved about $30 million, according to the board's estimates.
For high school students though, the incentive to go the Running Start route isn't purely monetary.
"There are a number of students who -- the traditional high school experience is not really for them," said Todd Haak, Running Start program coordinator at Seattle Central Community College. "They're ready to begin their college career."
Some students are bored with high school classes, or just not fitting into the traditional teenage scene.
"My thing was, I made tons of friends in high school, and that was a great ... but I kind of felt unfocused in class," former Running Start student Leanna Patricio said, recalling her experience at Cleveland High School. "I kind of realized I wanted a little more from high school."
The 18-year-old started Running Start at South Seattle Community College two years ago, and transferred to the University of Washington as a junior this fall.
"It was partly the fact that I was getting sick of that high school mentality, to be honest," said former Running Start student Elise Saba, now 21 and the recipient of last year's President's Medal at the UW.
Saba took classes at the Edmonds Homeschool Resource Center before beginning Running Start at North Seattle Community College and noted that a number of her homeschooled friends opted to enroll early at other area community colleges, too.
Last year there were more than 800 homeschooled students enrolled in Running Start, according to state board numbers.
Green River Community College in Auburn has the highest number of Running Start students -- 25 percent of its student body. Lake Washington Technical College has the lowest number, with just five Running Start students enrolled.
About 7 percent of the students at Seattle community colleges are earning high school credit.
And South Seattle Community College prides itself on offering Running Start as an option for minority students.
"It's a huge benefit and option for our diverse student community," South Seattle Vice President of Student Affairs Mark Mitsui said. "There's a lot of talent in the high schools in terms of student who come to us from Evergreen and Chief Sealth."
Overall, about 18 percent of the state's Running Start students are students of color, according to a recent state board report.