A new public-private partnership between the state and Washington businesses, including Redmond-based Microsoft Corp., has been developed to help families cope with rising tuition at colleges and universities statewide.
“As budgets tighten across the nation, it is essential for the state to take new steps that ensure a student’s opportunity to attend college is a function of commitment and hard work rather than the size of a family’s checkbook,” said Brad Smith, who chairs the scholarship program’s board of directors.
Smith, who serves as general counsel and executive vice president of legal and corporate affairs for Microsoft, said OS stemmed from a recommendation made by Gov. Chris Gregoire’s Higher Education Funding Task Force, which was created in July 2010. Smith was also chair of the task force and said they were asked to develop a realistic, stable and viable long-range funding strategy for Washington’s higher education system.
Smith, who got involved in the Higher Education Funding Task Force and OS because education is his passion, said for too long, the state’s strategy for funding higher education has been like a two-legged stool.
“One leg is state funding, which has been growing wobblier and weaker over the last decade,” Smith said in an email to the Redmond Reporter. “And the other leg is tuition, which only increases as state support diminishes, adding to the burden of families already struggling to afford to send their kids to college.”
Smith said with limited state resources, it is important to find more funding for higher education and increase opportunities for students to develop skills that will allow them to be competitive in the global economy. He added that OS provides a third leg to the stool and the partnership between the public and private sectors is something that no other state has done.
The program’s aim is to help low- and middle-income Washington residents earn their bachelor’s degrees in high demand fields including science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and health care and to encourage scholarship recipients to work in the state after graduation.
In addition to Microsoft, funding to launch OS came from The Boeing Company, another major employer in the Pacific Northwest. Both companies pledged $25 million each over the next five years to the OS Fund. The state will match these contributions to raise $100 million for scholarships.
“It’s an important first step towards the goal of creating a billion-dollar endowment for financial aid by the end of this decade,” Smith said. “The pledge exemplifies our work to enhance education opportunities for Washington students … We at Microsoft are committed to addressing the opportunity divide, a gap between those who have the access, skills and opportunities to be successful, and those who do not. Without the right support and education, our young people will face enormous challenges in their future. This scholarship enables our students and is a stepping stone toward combatting the opportunity divide.”
He added that Washington’s unemployment numbers clearly show how much of an impact education can have on people’s lives: In 2010, the unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma was 15.5 percent; the unemployment rate for those with a high school diploma was 10.1 percent and for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher the unemployment rate was 5.1 percent.
“As the world economy becomes more competitive, the jobs of the future will require more skills, not less,” Smith said. “The state needs a higher education funding strategy that will equip our children with the know-how and opportunity they will need in order to succeed and we proudly support the Opportunity Scholarship as an effective stepping stone toward this challenging goal.”
Applications are now open for scholarships in the 2012-13 academic year. The application deadline is April 16 at 5 p.m.
A total of 3,000 scholarships for $1,000 are available and recipients may renew their scholarship if they remain eligible. For information about eligibility and other details about the scholarship visit www.waopportunityscholarship.org.