In 2011, as Washington state was still recovering from the Great Recession, public higher education funding was being cut, tuition was skyrocketing, and many students were struggling to pay for college. 

Washington needed an innovative solution to better fund higher education — “a solution to support students facing untold barriers to accessing higher education, and a solution for employers struggling to hire the talent they needed to reach market demands,” Washington State Opportunity Scholarship Executive Director Kimber Connors said.  

So state legislators and higher education officials met with the region’s top employers, including Boeing and Microsoft, and major philanthropists, like the Rubens Family Foundation and Ballmer Group. Together they developed a new public-private partnership model in which scholarship funds raised by employers and other private donors would be matched dollar-for-dollar by the state. 

The Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS) fund is celebrating its 10th anniversary. To date, more than $200 million has been raised for awards for low- and middle-income students, and the program has helped 6,196 college graduates from high-demand science, technology, health care and trades fields, and counting, according to a new legislative report

And yet there still aren’t enough graduates in those fields to fill all the open jobs, Connors said, and there’s a need to get students to graduate on time. She described the history and the challenges during “Opportunity Talks,” a recent virtual fundraising event for the college and career readiness initiative.

In addition to its scholarship program for students attending four-year schools, WSOS has expanded to include a career and technical scholarship program and graduate scholarship initiative. Separate legislation has also helped establish a fund to help rural students go to college. 

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During the last application cycle, WSOS was only able to award scholarships to about a third of eligible applicants before running out of money. Connors said that while she’d like to see funds increase to support more scholars, the program is focused on graduating more students “who are prepared to meet the needs of jobs in the economy.”

To mark this 10-year milestone and recognize the ongoing need, Microsoft, the Rubens Family and Boeing all renewed their support to 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 step for Washington state. It was unique in the country, and indeed it remains unique in many ways today,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith. He has chaired the scholarship program’s board since it started in 2011, by governors’ appointment. 

Washington State Opportunity Scholars at a glance

Washington State Opportunity Scholarship received 3,145 applications for its 2021 baccalaureate scholarship program. A total of 750 scholars were selected for the 10th WSOS cohort.

The median family income among this group is $37,821. These scholars represent 34 out of 39 Washington counties, with Lincoln, Yakima, Chelan, Garfield and Pend Oreille having the highest per capita representation in the state. 

77% of students in this cohort identify as first-generation college students

78% identify as students of color; 32% identify as Hispanic/Latinx 

72% are 18 years old or younger 

57% identify as women

To date, 86% of selected scholars have indicated a desire to pursue a bachelor’s degree in the top four major categories of study: health care (28%), engineering (25%), biological or biomedical sciences (18%) or computer and information science (15%).

Source: Washington State Opportunity Scholarship 2021 Legislative Report

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Smith was joined by various state delegates and higher education officials during a recent news conference where Seattle Mayor Jenny A. Durkan announced a city investment into a new partnership with WSOS. Using federal Coronavirus Local Recovery Funds, the city will invest up to $400,000 through 2023 — matched by the state — to aid up to 60 Seattle Promise scholars who apply to WSOS to help continue their STEM education.

Durkan said that the coronavirus pandemic increased the financial burden for lower income students and students of color, as indicated by the number and demographics of applicants to the WSOS and Seattle Promise programs. 

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“It was a struggle to stay in school, to stay focused, to do online learning” during the pandemic, Durkan said. “And so we had to work with the colleges to pivot and to innovate and to think, how do we make sure they’re getting support for the other things they need, whether it’s transportation, or child care or books, sometimes food and housing security?”

The WSOS baccalaureate scholarship, for example, provides students seeking four-year STEM degrees with up to $22,500 over a maximum of five years to help finish their degree. The funds can be used for tuition, fees and costs of living. Students in the WSOS scholarship programs also have the opportunity to work with college counselors and career mentors for guidance on how to reach their goals. 

Smith said the new partnership “will enable more students who grow up in Seattle to go to college in Washington and fill the high-paying jobs that businesses are creating across Puget Sound. It will literally change people’s lives,” he said. 

Three years ago, Albany Garcia moved to the United States from Venezuela, enrolled in Seattle’s Ingraham High School, and graduated in eight months. She first became a Seattle Promise scholar, able to go to community college tuition-free. “It was the best news I ever received,” she said.

The taxpayer-funded program gave her a pathway, the financial and academic support needed to enroll in college. “That scholarship allowed me to start imagining the careers I could have,” she said.

Garcia, now a 21-year-old North Seattle College student, has a self-described “love-hate relationship” with math. “Where I come from, science and math classes are for men,” she said. 

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But she “decided to take a risk. I love knowing how things work and the world of computers was one of them,” she said. She began studying math and computer science, with dreams of becoming a software engineer.

To help sustain her career goals, she was encouraged by Camara Harris-Weaver — then a Seattle Promise retention specialist for North Seattle College, now a WSOS career and technical scholarship adviser — to apply for a Washington State Opportunity Scholarship. Garcia got it. 

“This partnership will be amazing because it will help many students like me be able to afford college expenses and still support their families,” she said, noting that she has worked while going to school to help her family get ahead. 

English is Garcia’s second language, so she appreciated the help she received in understanding and filling out the application forms and navigating the college admissions process. That personal attention, she said, makes all the difference and has given her the confidence she needs to pursue what some people told her was an mpossible dream.  

Looking ahead to her next semester, Garcia said WSOS staff are helping her find her first internship. “They’re good. They reach out and they push you a little bit,” she said. “They help you keep on track to finish.” 

Correction: This article has been updated from its original version. To date, more than $200 million has been raised to help low- and middle-income students through the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship. The original story stated said that much had been awarded. Funds are released over the time a scholar is in school.