In 2011, while Washington state was still recovering from the Great Recession, public funding for higher education was cut, tuition fees rose dramatically, and many students were struggling to pay for college.
Washington needed an innovative solution to improve higher education funding — “a solution to support students who face untold barriers to accessing higher education, and a solution to employers who struggle to hire the talent they need to reach market demands,” Washington State Scholarships Executive Director Kimber said. Connors.
So state lawmakers and higher education officials met with the region’s top employers, including Boeing and Microsoft, and major philanthropists, such as the Rubens Family Foundation and Ballmer Group. Together, they have developed a new model of public-private partnership, in which scholarships collected by employers and other private donors are given dollar for dollar by the state.
The Washington State Scholarship Fund (WSOS) celebrates its 10th anniversary. To date, more than $200 million has been awarded to low- and middle-income students, and the program has helped 6,196 college graduates from high-demand fields of science, technology, health care, and trades count, according to a new legislative report.
However, there are not enough graduates in these fields to fill all the vacancies, Connors said, and there is a need to get students to graduate on time. She described the history and challenges during “Opportunity Talks,” a virtual college fundraising event and career readiness initiative.
In addition to the scholarship program for students attending four-year schools, WSOS has expanded to include the Professional and Technical Scholarship Program and the Graduate Scholarship Initiative. Separate legislation also helped create a fund to help rural students enter university.
During the most recent application cycle, WSOS was only able to award scholarships to about a third of eligible applicants before they run out of funds. Connors said that while she would like to raise funds to support more scholars, the program is focused on graduating more students who are “ready to meet the needs of jobs in the economy.”
To celebrate this 10-year milestone and recognize continued need, Microsoft, Rubens Family, and Boeing have renewed their support for WSOS with recent donations of $15 million, $10 million, and $5 million, respectively.
When the program was created a decade ago, it was a unique move for the state of Washington. “It was unique in the country, and indeed remains unique in many ways today,” said Brad Smith, President of Microsoft. He has chaired the Board of Directors of the grant program since its inception in 2011 with the appointment of governors.
Smith was joined by several state delegates and higher education officials during a recent press conference where Seattle Mayor Jenny A. Durkan announced a city investment in a new partnership with WSOS. Using federal local coronavirus recovery funds, the city will invest up to $400,000 through 2023 — paid by the state — to help up to 60 Promising Seattle scientists who apply to WSOS to help further their STEM education.
Durkan said the coronavirus pandemic has increased the financial burden on low-income students and students of color, as evidenced by the number and demographics of WSOS and Seattle Promise applicants.
“It has been difficult to stay in school, focus on online learning” during the pandemic, Durkan said. “So we’ve had to work with colleges to focus and innovate and think, how do we make sure that they get support for the other things they need, whether it’s transportation, childcare, books, sometimes food, housing, safety?”
For example, the WSOS Baccalaureate Scholarship provides students pursuing four-year STEM degrees up to $22,500 over a maximum of five years to help finish their degree. The funds can be used for tuition, fees and living costs. Students in WSOS scholarship programs also have the opportunity to work with college advisors and career mentors to obtain guidance on how to achieve their goals.
Smith said the new partnership “will enable more students who grew up in Seattle to attend college in Washington and fill the high-paying jobs that companies create across Puget Sound. It’s literally going to change people’s lives.”
Three years ago, Albany Garcia moved to the United States from Venezuela, attended Ingraham High School in Seattle, and graduated in eight months. She initially became a researcher at Seattle University, able to attend community college without tuition. “It was the best news I ever received,” she said.
The taxpayer-funded program gave her the pathway, financial and academic support needed to enroll in college. “That scholarship allowed me to start imagining the jobs I could get,” she said.
Garcia, 21, a student at North Seattle College, has a relationship described as a “love and hate affair” with mathematics. “Where I come from, science and math classes for men,” she said.
But she “decided to take a risk. I like to know how things work and the computer world was one of them,” she said. She began studying mathematics and computer science, and she dreamed of becoming a software engineer.
To help maintain her career goals, Camara Harris-Weaver—then a Seattle Promise Retention Specialist at North Seattle College and now a WSOS and technical grant advisor—has encouraged her to apply for the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship. Garcia got it.
“This partnership will be great because it will help many students like me afford college while still providing for their families,” she said, noting that she worked while going to school to help her family move on.
English is Garcia’s second language, so she appreciated the help she received in understanding and filling in application forms and navigating the college admissions process. She said that this personal attention makes all the difference and gives her the confidence she needs to follow through on what some people have told her was a simple dream.
Looking forward to the next semester, Garcia said WSOS staff are helping her find her first internship. “They are good. They reach out and push you a little bit,” she said. “They help you stay on the right track all the way to the end.”