Politics & Government

Two Washington state companies donate combined $50 million for students

Washington’s two biggest private employers brought their checkbooks to the birth of a new scholarship fund for college students studying high-demand fields.

Boeing and Microsoft Corp. gave $25 million each to start up the Washington Opportunity Scholarship. State government plans to match the gifts dollar for dollar – as soon as it has a little more cash to spare.

“We hope others will join us,” Boeing lobbyist Laura Peterson said, “in creating this lasting legacy.”

Scholarships start going out in December, said Gov. Chris Gregoire, who on Monday approved both the endowment fund that could make college more affordable and a policy that will certainly make it more expensive.

She signed into law authority for universities to set tuition. The state budget assumes double-digit tuition increases at all the state’s four-year schools, including 16 percent at the University of Washington and 14 percent at The Evergreen State College, but the schools could decide to go higher if they offer more aid. Tuition has already surged 28 percent in two years, the governor said.

Gregoire said it’s still a bargain compared with schools in other states – and she said lawmakers made sure it would stay that way for poor and middle-class students by creating the endowment and adding more than $100 million to make students at higher income levels eligible for the State Need Grant.

Both the endowment scholarships and the expanded need grants will now be available to families earning 125 percent of the state’s median income, just shy of $100,000 for a family of four.

The endowment is intended to help in-state students pay for bachelor’s degrees in “high employer demand” areas that a board will pick but that are expected to include science, math, technology and engineering, plus health care and manufacturing programs.

Gregoire and the companies said the public-private endowment is the first of its kind nationally and set a goal of inflating it to $1 billion by the end of the decade. Overall, the governor said, the goal is for 6,000 more students to graduate each year with bachelor’s degrees, including 2,000 in science, math and related fields.

But even before the expanded eligibility, about 22,000 eligible students didn’t receive a need grant in 2009-10 because the program ran out of money, state officials say.

And there’s no guarantee business will chip in to the endowment. The only incentive is the knowledge that state government will match up to $50 million a year as early as 2014 – and the hope of helping educate tomorrow’s workers, which Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith said companies want to do.

“We can only grow if there are talented individuals that can fill the jobs we create,” Smith told reporters.

An alternative idea to create a tax break for contributors to the endowment gained no traction this legislative session. The endowment itself squeaked out of the Legislature only in the final days of the special session, though the measure by Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, had overwhelming support when it came time to a vote.

The tuition authority also passed with bipartisan backing last month, although Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, warned that the universities, left to survive with less state funding, would essentially cease to be public schools.

The state budget is cutting about 22 percent from higher education, and Gregoire said lawmakers avoided the temptation to “micromanage” those cuts, allowing universities to raise more money from students so they can “keep the doors open” and maintain competitive pay to retain faculty.

“Those who can afford to pay more ought to pay more. What’s the problem there?” said House Speaker Frank Chopp, whose own daughter attends Western Washington University.

House Higher Education Committee Chairman Larry Seaquist said the tuition and financial-aid package Gregoire signed Monday would “set the foundation for success in our colleges and universities.” The Gig Harbor Democrat said he’s planning a set of statewide meetings to generate interest in college reforms.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826