New scholarship aims to fan interest in high-tech careers
A new public-private scholarship for Washington college students who are studying in high-tech fields will award 3,000 scholarships of $1,000 each.
Seattle Times higher education reporter
Washington Opportunity Scholarship
Who qualifies: Students must be residents of Washington, have a 2.75 grade-point average, be majoring or planning to major in science, technology, engineering, math or health care, earn up to 125 percent of the median family income and fill out the Federal Application for Free Student Aid.
To apply: Go to www.waopportunityscholarship.org. The deadline is April 16.
There are some college scholarships that make applicants write soul-searching essays, and others that require teachers or coaches to vouch for a student's academic drive and character.
But the newly created Opportunity Scholarship for Washington students majoring in certain high-tech fields aims to make it easy to earn $1,000 for college.
No essays. No recommendations. Just meet the income level — up to $102,000 for a family of four — and have a 2.75 grade-point average, then fill out the federal student-aid paperwork and the scholarship application.
This fall, Washington will award 3,000 scholarships worth $1,000 each to students majoring in science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and health care — the first year for what its creators hope will one day be a $1 billion scholarship endowment for Washington students.
The scholarship is a public-private partnership created by the Legislature in 2011 and designed to encourage students to get their bachelor's degrees in high-tech fields.
It's available to anyone enrolled full time in Washington colleges or universities. High-school students getting ready to graduate, as well as college students still working on their degrees, can apply.
State policy leaders have been concerned for some time that Washington isn't producing enough college graduates, especially in high-demand fields such as computer science and engineering.
Although some of those programs have a limited number of seats, those leaders also believe not enough high-school graduates are choosing to go on to college, or picking STEM fields for their major.
Last year, Boeing and Microsoft donated $25 million each to kick-start the program, and the Legislature gave an additional $5 million.
Is $1,000 enough to persuade students who are not already planning to major in a high-tech field? Probably not, acknowledged Brad Smith, Microsoft vice president and general counsel, who sits on the private board that is overseeing the scholarships.
"We'd still like them to be bigger," Smith said, adding, "This is just the beginning."
The Opportunity Scholarship Board is awarding a large number of modest-size scholarships to try to reach as many students as possible, Smith said. Other board members include Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh and Jim Sinegal, co-founder of Costco.
Because they're renewable for up to five years, the scholarships could be worth up to $5,000 — though that won't make a major dent at the University of Washington, for example, where one year of undergraduate tuition and fees costs more than $10,500, even without living expenses and books factored in.
"Every drop helps," Smith said. "But what we'd really like to get to is the point where this is not drops in a bucket, but we're really turning on a fire hydrant."
Dave Forrester, a counselor at Olympia High School and a finalist for the national School Counselor of the Year award, called the award "one of the easier scholarships to apply for," and one that high-school counselors are working to promote.
He said he expects to see growing interest in STEM fields because so many middle-school students statewide are beginning to take high-school-level math, such as algebra and geometry.
"We're going to see a lot more interest in scholarships like this," he said.
The scholarship board's goal is to raise $1 billion in private money by the end of the decade for an endowment. The state will begin matching private donations after state revenue collections reach a certain threshold, or in 2014, whichever is later.
Legislation caps the state match at $50 million annually.
So far, no other companies have donated to the fund, but Smith said the board has not really started soliciting them for money yet.
About 2,000 students have started working on the online Opportunity Scholarship application, which has a deadline of April 16, said Dave Sharp, a spokesman for the College Success Foundation, which is administering the scholarship.
Smith said the board hopes students will realize that "if they pursue a particular course of study, there's more money to do so."
He noted that STEM students must do well in demanding classes that require a lot of study time. By offering money to those students, Smith said, "they'll have more time in the classroom, and less time raising money by working odd jobs and the like."
He said the scholarship board also wants to expose students to leaders in high-tech fields, and give them career advice and other tools to help as they shape their careers.
"We hope we can make this about more than scholarships," he said. "What we need to do as a state is build a STEM movement that attracts more people into these fields."
Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @katherinelong.