Opportunity scholarships benefit more than just students

By every measure, Ross Jones has been successful in college. On Saturday, the 22-year-old from Lake Stevens will join some 5,000 other University of Washington graduates for commencement in Husky Stadium. With a degree in bioengineering, he’ll soon be off to graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

By one measure, he is like millions of people across this country. He is leaving UW with student-loan debt.

“I have at least $35,000 in debt, mostly from the first two years,” said Jones, who graduated from Lake Stevens High School in 2010 and now lives in Seattle.

Even with that debt burden, he is more fortunate than many. In his last two years at UW, Jones received a Washington State Opportunity Scholarship. It’s a boost that has helped more than 2,500 college students in our state.

Launched in 2011 through a public-private partnership, the scholarship helps support students studying in STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — or health care at universities and colleges in Washington.

“The first time I got it, it was $1,000. Then it was bumped up this year — $5,000 for people in their major. That’s pretty significant when tuition is $13,000 a year,” Jones said.

Administered by the College Success Foundation, the scholarship was created by an investment of $50 million from the Boeing Co. and Microsoft, along with an initial $5 million from the state. House Bill 2612, approved by the Legislature this year, included a commitment to match private dollars up to $25 million, according to Theresa Britschgi, director of Washington State Opportunity Scholarship STEM support services.

At the UW on Monday, Jones and 13 other Washington State Opportunity Scholarship recipients were celebrated at an event that also recognized lawmakers and contributors. Scholars shared their experiences in juggling tough courses, jobs needed to pay for college, and work in labs or internships related to their fields — often unpaid.

Britschgi said 2,562 students have received the scholarships at 68 schools in Washington. For the upcoming academic year, almost 800 students recently learned they will get Washington State Opportunity Scholarships with an opportunity to renew for up to $22,500 over five years. Rather than $1,000, which Jones first received, the initial amount will be $2,500. Seniors will get $7,500 rather than $5,000, Britschgi said.

For Washington, it means more homegrown graduates will qualify for top jobs, and become high-earning taxpayers. For Boeing and Microsoft, it’s creating qualified workers. For students like Jones, it’s a chance to focus on college.

“This is investing in the economic vitality of the future of our state,” Britschgi said. “While we don’t dislike English majors, we can’t dedicate state dollars to that work.”

Jones will earn a stipend at MIT, and will likely work as a teaching assistant. He expects his Ph.D. program in bioengineering to take five years. He will study systems and synthetic biology — “it’s engineering life,” he said. Applications can range from cancer research to entrepreneurship.

While at the UW, Jones had an internship with Amgen, a biotechnology company, but also worked at a sorority, a Nike outlet store, and for his father, Steve Jones, who sells pressure-washing equipment. His mother, Becky Wallace, also helped with college expenses.

To get into competitive majors, Jones said, students push hard for top grades in their first two years of college. Once in their majors, it’s important to find work related to careers. “Sometimes you need the experience, but can’t afford to take unpaid work,” he said.

When I started at UW in 1972 — a taxpaying English major here — undergraduate tuition was $144 per quarter. According to Bloomberg News and a recent article at Salon.com, the cost of a university education grew by 1,120 percent between 1978 and 2012. On Wednesday, a vote in the U.S. Senate fell short of advancing a bill that would have let borrowers refinance older student-loan debt to a current lower rate.

As many as 40 million Americans have student loan debt, according to the federal Department of Education. The average borrower owes almost $30,000.

Jones is glad he got in on the opportunity scholarship. He sees it as a win-win for companies that contribute.

“They’re really investing in their future employees,” he said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

Washington State Opportunity Scholarships are awarded to students who have earned Washington state high school diplomas or GEDs, are from low- or middle-income families, and are studying in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math or health care at qualifying Washington universities or colleges. Information: www.waopportunityscholarship.org

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