A generous state scholarship program that helps pay college tuition at four-year schools will soon expand to help students earn professional technical degrees at community and technical colleges.
A seven-year-old state scholarship program that has helped more than 2,000 students earn a bachelor’s degree will soon offer the same type of generous aid to students who want to gain technical skills at community and technical colleges.
It’s part of a growing emphasis on encouraging more students to earn technical degrees and credentials after they graduate from high school — and a recognition that a four-year college degree doesn’t work for everyone.
On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that makes a major change to the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS), a $200 million public-private scholarship fund that began in 2011 as a way to help low- and middle-income students earning bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and health care.
Under the change, Washington high-school grads will be able to get WSOS scholarships to help pay for short-term certificates and other professional technical degrees offered at the state’s community and technical colleges.
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The scholarships might also be offered to adult students.
“There is a resurgence of valuing technical education, and I see this as part of that pendulum swinging a little more,” said Amy Morrison Goings, president of Lake Washington Institute of Technology.
The Kirkland school is one of the state’s five technical colleges.
Microsoft President Brad Smith, who chairs the WSOS board of directors, said the new law shines a light on the growing number of one- and two-year certificate programs that provide grads with a good income.
Smith also recently co-chaired a task force created by Inslee to examine ways to more closely connect education to career skills.
The awards likely won’t begin until 2019, and the scholarship board will also need to decide which fields will qualify for scholarship aid, said Naria Santa Lucia, WSOS executive director.
But the aim is to pick fields where there’s a gap in the workforce, and the list will likely include health care, aerospace and shipbuilding, she said.
Smith said the WSOS scholarship success paved the way for it to be offered for professional technical degrees.
Currently, WSOS helps students whose families make up to 125 percent of the state median family income, or $110,000 for a family of four.
That’s an unusually high level for scholarship money, and it was set at that level to aid middle-class families that miss the cutoff for federal aid but still find college is a financial stretch.
The new professional technical scholarships will have a similar income cutoff, Santa Lucia said.
The bachelor’s degree scholarship provides up to $22,500 in tuition aid, and supports students for up to five years of study. For professional technical degrees, the scholarship amounts will be less because tuition for those degrees is lower, Santa Lucia said.
The scholarship has been awarded to 6,700 students since 2011, and, “It’s become one of the larger scholarship programs in the country, when you think about it in terms of number of people involved,” Smith said.
It has expanded to include support services for students, including mentorships and other assistance in college.
It’s also helping low-income students climb the income ladder. A 2016 study showed that the scholarship winners who graduated and found jobs were making as much as or more than their parents made — and they were reaching that level of income in the first year out of college.
The award winners are a diverse group of students, Smith said. Last year, more than half the recipients were women. Seventy-two percent were first-generation college students, and 73 percent were students of color.
“The success of the program has, in many ways, exceeded our expectations,” Smith said. “We’re reaching people of lower means, we’re reaching people of color, women as well as men, people who have never been to college … the opportunity to take this kind of formula and apply to other postsecondary credentials is not only exciting but important for the state.”
The state has set a goal of getting 70 percent of its high-school graduates to earn a postsecondary credential — some type of career training or a college degree — by 2030.
Today, only about 31 percent do so, Smith said.
For the state to more than double the amount of students who get extra training after high school, “we’ve got to create additional pathways and additional funding, to provide the means to get credentials,” Smith said.
“A four-year university is not for everyone,” said Morrison Goings, of Lake Washington Tech. “It’s really important that we provide different opportunities for young people.”
The idea of expanding the scholarship to include professional technical degrees came from the state Legislature, said Smith, perhaps because the program has drawn strong support from private donors.
In all, WSOS has raised nearly $100 million privately, an amount that’s been matched by the state. It has raised enough to support 16,000 students by 2025.