Three programs at Washington’s public universities have been granted a total of $6 million to address the state’s growing demand for technology education.
A program that aids low-income and first-generation students who want to major in engineering at the University of Washington is one of three initiatives awarded a total of $6 million to address the state’s growing demand for technology education.
The Washington State Academic Redshirt (STARS) program will receive a grant of $2.19 million over three years, allowing it to double the number of students it can serve during that time.
The other two universities that will receive money are Central Washington University, which will get $2.19 million to adopt a curriculum developed at the University of Texas at Austin that helps undergraduates majoring in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) become teachers, without adding time or cost to their degrees; and Western Washington University, which will receive $1.6 million to grow the computer-science department. Western has seen the number of students seeking a computer-science degree increase 500 percent in five years.
The money is being granted by Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS) program, a public-private partnership created by the state Legislature in 2011.
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As it happens in this case, though, all of the $6 million is coming from Microsoft.
The legislation allowed companies that qualified for a research-and-development tax credit to donate all or a portion of the money to the state to support WSOS’ Opportunity Expansion Fund, a specific fund that distributes money to institutions of higher education to increase the number of STEM degrees and other programs. Microsoft was the only company to donate its credits to the fund.
Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, heads the WSOS board of directors. He said the board picked programs that offer innovative approaches to solving two problems: increasing the number of STEM teachers, and increasing the capacity in the colleges and universities for students who want to study in these majors.
He said the board heeded advice from several lawmakers that it give out the money to three programs with proven track records, rather than widely disbursing small amounts of money to a lot of different programs.
“As a board appointed by the state — but a board of people who don’t have to see re-election ourselves — we were able to focus this investment more, and I’m hoping people will recognize this as a very wise public investment,” Smith said.
STARS, the UW program, will be able to add 32 new students to its program each year for two years, double the number it can reach, said Eve Riskin, associate dean of diversity and access in the UW College of Engineering.
STARS uses an idea borrowed from college athletics called redshirting. The program enrolls promising engineering students — many of them women and minorities — from low-income families, and gives them an additional year of collegiate academic prep work in subjects like math and science.
These students often graduate from high schools where rigorous math and science classes aren’t available, and they need a year of catch-up work to help them succeed in engineering. The money will allow the program to hire new advisers, and offer more workshops and other forms of help to assist first-year students in math and science.
The program has an 80 percent retention rate, Riskin said. According to figures from the American Society for Engineering Education, the retention rate for freshmen majoring in engineering at large research universities runs around 65 percent — and only about 50 percent for students from underrepresented populations.
In all, 20 colleges, universities and school districts applied for the grants, and they asked for a total of $50 million, said Naria Santa Lucia, WSOS executive director. She said the number of applications clearly pointed to the significant need for programs such as these.
The grants to schools are just a small part of what WSOS does. The lion’s share of its work is providing scholarships to low- and middle-income Washington students majoring in STEM and health care, at both two- and four-year colleges.
The program has raised about $97 million in private contributions, and those are matched by the state. More than 6,800 students have received scholarships to date.
Because of changes in state law, the expansion-fund part of the program was only able to collect the research and development tax credit between 2011 and 2015. But the scholarship program is ongoing.
Critics might argue that it’s disingenuous of Microsoft to contribute to programs that uniquely benefit the tech industry. And Microsoft has long been criticized for its efforts to minimize the amount it pays in taxes.
But Smith said the company, of late, has been stepping up.
“We’ve been putting a lot of drops in the bucket, and the drops do add up, I believe,” Smith said. He pointed to the state budget deal in 2015 that resulted in Microsoft’s taxes increasing by $57 million over two years. “That led to an increase in our taxes, and that affected only Microsoft,” he said.
Microsoft also contributed $10 million in 2015 toward the construction of a new computer-science building at UW.
This story, originally published Feb. 9, has been corrected. STARS will be able to add 32 new students to its program each year for the next two years, not three years.