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Editorial: STEM scholarship plan right for Spokane

A unique public/private scholarship program is putting down roots in Spokane, which should enable more area students to take advantage of a program that can work for them, and the state’s economy.

Spokane County has been underrepresented in the pool of applicants for Washington State Opportunity Scholarships, and therefore underrepresented among the winners. But the hiring of a senior program officer for the region should raise the program’s profile.

It fits Spokane well.

The scholarships were created in 2011 to help low- and middle-income students earn degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM. The median household income for applicants has been $47,105.

Despite the large number of Spokane County households that qualify, only 7 percent of applicants are from the county. Applications from Pierce County, with a similar demographic profile, are almost double that for Spokane.

That said, scholarship administrators have done an excellent job spreading out the money; only Garfield County is unrepresented among recipients.

Women, defying a stereotype that they are averse to STEM disciplines, captured 62 percent of scholarships awarded in the most recent round. More than half the recipients identified themselves as “students of color.”

The scholarships are substantial: up to $22,000 through five years, the duration for many students whose progress is delayed by the lack of classroom and laboratory capacity at Washington colleges and universities. As long as they maintain a 2.75 grade-point average and stick with one of 376 majors, they will get their scholarship.

The funds are provided by Microsoft Corp. and Boeing Co., which put up $25 million each, with a 100 percent state match. So far, about $18 million has been disbursed to 4,400 students. Gov. Jay Inslee has put $100 million in his biennial budget for the program, and program officials are working to expand the number of contributors from the private sector.

A study completed last month by the Boston Consulting Group estimates the state gets back $7 in tax revenue for every $1 invested.

After a first-round distribution to 3,000 students, officials have tightened criteria and settled on an annual goal of 780 new recipients. Survey responses from early graduates indicate 65 percent are going on to graduate schools or finding jobs in a STEM-related field; 90 percent with Washington companies. Every graduate with an agriculture-related major is employed.

The BCG study says companies could add as many as 25,000 jobs – if they only had the graduates to fill them. Washington State Opportunity Scholarships help sustain students who can close the gap. More Spokane and Eastern Washington students should be applying.

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