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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

State STEM scholarship expanding to encompass new skills

Since it was established seven years ago, the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship has helped thousands of students earn bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering, math and health care.

Now, thanks to bipartisan support in the Legislature, the $200 million public-private scholarship program is being expanded to help students gain specialized skills at community and technical colleges – skills such as nursing, welding and metal fabrication that are in high demand and don’t require four-year degrees.

“There used to be training at high schools for a lot of those programs,” said Gary Rubens, a Seattle startup investor who sits on the WSOS board and recently donated $20 million to the scholarship. “Now it’s coming up that we have a shortage of electricians. We have a shortage of welders for the shipbuilding industry. And those jobs are good-paying jobs.”

Rubens and other backers of the scholarship said the expansion would help fill workforce gaps in communities across the state.

“It’s definitely a good investment,” he said. “It gets workers into the workforce faster and it costs less.”

Other board members include Mike Wilson, the director of the Spokane Teaching Health Center and former Providence Health Care executive, and Antony Chiang, the president of the Empire Health Foundation. And state Rep. Jeff Holy, R-Cheney, was the lead sponsor of the bill to expand the scholarship to students seeking vocational degrees and credentials.

The bill passed the House with unanimous support and the Senate with only one “no” vote. It was signed last month by Gov. Jay Inslee, who has been pushing for more emphasis on so-called support jobs in industries such as aerospace and health care.

“For every dollar raised, the state matches 1-to-1 so it’s a pretty cool program and cool opportunity,” Rubens said. “Both sides of the aisle really believe in education and really believe in filling these jobs in Washington state and providing the funding.”

Washington lawmakers this year also agreed to invest up to $1 million in a rural jobs program and up to $1 million in a program for graduate-level medical degrees, both based on the WSOS model. Lawmakers also pledged to fully fund the State Need Grant, which has been unable to provide financial aid to all of the students who qualify for it for nearly a decade.

While the State Need Grant primarily benefits the poorest students, the opportunity scholarship is available to students from low- and middle-income families – those who might miss the cutoff for federal aid but still struggle pay for college.

The scholarship currently helps students from families that make up to 125 percent of Washington’s median family income, or about $111,000 for a family of four. For students seeking bachelor’s degrees, it provides up to $22,500 in tuition aid for up to five years of study.

The maximum amount of aid will be smaller for students seeking vocational degrees and credentials because their tuition is less expensive, said Jessica Monger, the WSOS director of external affairs.

So far, about 6,700 students have received aid from WSOS, and nearly 3,000 of those students have earned bachelor’s degrees. About 16,000 students are expected to benefit from the program by 2025.

The scholarship also has a track record of helping disadvantaged and underrepresented groups. Among this year’s recipients, 60 percent are women, 73 percent are students of color and 72 percent are the first in their families to attend college, Monger said.

Jim Brady, the dean of computing, math and science at Spokane Falls Community College, said the expansion of the scholarship recognizes that four-year schools are not for everyone, and that “you don’t necessarily have to get a bachelor’s degree to get a good STEM job.”

Brady, who began his own higher education at Spokane Community College, said he often tells students that two-year schools aren’t just a launch pad for more advanced degrees. About a quarter of the students at SFCC seek vocational degrees, while the rest seek to transfer elsewhere, he said.

“Going for a vocational degree is not a compromise. It’s a choice,” Brady said. “It may not present all of the opportunities for growth and management and all that sort of stuff, but not everybody is looking for that. And I think it’s important for us to remember that every year you’re in college, the money is going the wrong way.”

Rubens, the Seattle investor, didn’t begin pursuing a college degree until a couple years ago. He made his fortune in part by selling an e-commerce website to Lowe’s, the chain of hardware and home-improvement stores, in 2011. Now, at 55, he’s working on a bachelor’s degree in social science from Washington State University.

“My parents had no money for me to go to college, so I didn’t get to go,” he said. “It turned out OK for me, but at the end of the day there’s a lot of students that have very high potential but low opportunity, financially, to get to college.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on May 4, 2018, to include more up-to-date statistics about recipients of the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship.