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A state-sponsored scholarship program that encourages low- and moderate-income Washington students to major in tech and science fields is increasing its awards to a maximum of $22,500, a 32 percent increase.

The public-private partnership, which received an additional $25 million from the Legislature earlier this year, so far has given money to 4,300 students, some of whom are graduating this year. Another 800 scholars have been chosen for the next academic year.

The scholarship is designed to encourage low- and moderate-income students to major in science, technology, engineering, math and health-care fields.

Of the funds, Microsoft and Boeing have each contributed $25 million, and the public-private funding model “literally exists nowhere else in this country,” said Brad Smith, executive vice president of Microsoft and chairman of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship’s board of directors.

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On Monday, several state legislators and top University of Washington administrators met with some of the students who have used Opportunity Scholarship money to pay their way through school. The discussion, on the third floor of Parrington Hall at the UW, offered a glimpse into the ways students who show bright promise in high-demand fields, but who don’t have a lot of financial help from home, navigate the education system.

Almost all of the students said they worked during school, but many also had to take out loans ranging from $25,000 to $35,000.

For some, the scholarship money helped them reduce or eliminate the need to take out more loans, or allowed them to work on unpaid research instead of taking a dead-end job to pay bills.

Getting the money freed senior Nadia Arang, of Arlington, from having to work as a lab tech, doing menial tasks like washing bottles. “It was exhausting,” she said.

After she got the scholarship, she quit the lab-tech job and went looking for something she really wanted to do. Her search led her to Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, where she’s working on malaria research. She’ll continue that work after she graduates this spring.

Melissa Gile, a junior who grew up in Maple Valley, was able to use the money to participate in a NASA Space Grant research program. She did research in chemical engineering at the UW over one summer, which was paid for in part by her lab at the UW and in part by the scholarship money.

Samantha Motley, who transferred from Seattle Central College and is also graduating this year, was able to pay for her last year at the UW without taking out additional student loans.

In order to qualify for the scholarship program, students must be residents of Washington, have a Washington state high-school diploma or GED, and intend to complete a bachelor’s degree from an eligible Washington college or university. Community-college students who plan to transfer to a four-year program are also eligible. The application period runs from December through February.

This year, a student from a family of four with an annual income of up to $104,000 was eligible.

Smith, of Microsoft, said the program is designed to ease enough of the financial burden that students can spend more time studying.

Some of the STEM-degree fields are so demanding that students need a fifth year to finish; under the new award schedule, scholarship winners will receive $2,500 in both their freshman and sophomore years, $5,000 their junior year, $7,500 their senior year and $5,000 their fifth year if they need an additional year. Before the increase, the maximum award amount was $17,000.

Smith said Monday that the scholarship award may be bumped up even more in later years.

Smith has been involved in higher-education policy for a number of years, including serving on a panel on higher education created by former Gov. Chris Gregoire. And in speaking to the group Monday, he referred to a long-standing problem in Washington — the state’s most successful businesses can’t find enough college grads in this state, and must do a lot of hiring out of state.

“We’re an unusual state — we’ve done a better job of creating jobs than educating people with the skills needed to fill them,” he said.

Smith said the scholarship board aims to raise $200 million over the next decade, largely from the private sector, to beef up scholarship awards. He announced a $1 million contribution from the Aven Foundation and said he and his wife are also giving $500,000.

“There’s definitely more coming,” Smith said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or

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