A public-private scholarship program that aims to make it less expensive for college students to study for high-tech careers got a $25 million boost this year from the state Legislature.
That down payment on scholarships will also make it easier for leaders of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship program to get private businesses to contribute to it.
It’s still too early to know if the extra money will mean an increase in the number of students who get scholarships or will be used to cover existing scholarships, said Brad Smith, who chairs the Opportunity Scholarship Board and is also executive vice president and general counsel for Microsoft. “We haven’t sat down and run the numbers.”
But the infusion of state cash will likely convince some private donors that the state is serious about subsidizing careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Smith said.
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“As we’ve been out having conversations with donors — large donors — the No. 1 question that people ask is whether the state will really come through with the match,” Smith said. The $25 million funding “demonstrates the state is committed to this program.”
In 2011, Boeing and Microsoft each pledged $25 million to the newly created Opportunity Scholarships. Few other private businesses have followed suit. But Smith said he expects to be able to make an announcement in June about some major new private donations.
The Opportunity Scholarships are available for undergraduate resident students who are studying at Washington public or private colleges, and whose family income is at or below the 125th percentile — an income of about $104,000 a year for a family of four. That means many middle-income students qualify.
Currently, 2,500 students in school now are receiving the scholarships, which start at $1,000 a year for the first two years of college and jump to $5,000 a year for a student’s junior and senior years. An additional $5,000 is available for students who need a fifth year to finish, meaning the award can be worth up to $17,000.
The deadline for this year passed in February, and about 700 new scholarships are expected to be awarded later this spring.
State Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, who wrote the state budget, said he made funding the Opportunity Scholarships a top priority. He’s a supporter of the program, he said, because “I really like it when the private sector has skin in the game.”
Hill noted that Washington is a net importer of STEM jobs — that is, it brings students to Washington state to work here because state colleges and universities don’t produce enough graduates to fill all the high-tech jobs being created.
The scholarship money is “all about getting Washington students prepared for good Washington jobs,” he said.
About 35 percent of scholarship recipients are studying engineering and computer science, 28 percent are majoring in the health-care fields, 20 percent are studying biology or biotechnology, and the remainder are majoring in the physical sciences or mathematics, Smith said.
When the scholarship program was first created in 2011, Smith — who headed a governor’s task force on higher-education funding — said he wanted to see the state build a $1 billion endowment fund over a decade to create long-term support. But now, he said, organizers are cranking back on that goal, instead planning to award most of the money during the current decade.
The reason: The money is needed now, while the high-tech economy in Washington is on yet another growth spurt, and employers say there aren’t enough grads to fill all of the openings.
One study says the state has more than 25,000 unfilled high-tech jobs — a number that is expected to double — and if all those jobs were filled “it would add one billion a year to the state budget” in new revenue, Smith said.
Of the current scholarship winners, the largest percentage — about 38 percent — is at the University of Washington, and another 11 percent are at Washington State University. The rest are at public and private colleges throughout the state.
Smith said 54 percent of the recipients are women, and 41 percent identify themselves as students of color.
With tuition and fees running about $12,000 a year at the UW and WSU — and room and board more than doubling the cost — the scholarship isn’t big enough to take a major bite out of tuition.
Rather, it’s designed to help students avoid having to spend a lot of time working their way through school, and allow them to focus on their studies.
“It’s very difficult for a student to major in one of these fields and hold down two or three jobs at the same time,” Smith said.
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.