Editorial: A pathway to careers for community college students

By The Herald Editorial Board

State lawmakers are considering expansion of a successful scholarship program that could help connect more students with good-paying jobs in STEM and health care fields in the state.

Since the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship’s launch in 2011, the program’s goals have reached beyond simply increasing the number of state high school students in four-year degree programs in STEM and health care fields. The program has sought to increase enrollment in those fields among women and racial minorities. It also offers guidance and mentorships that lead to employment in those careers soon after graduation in work that keeps them employed in their home state.

Five years in, the program, which is supported through private donations — much of that from state-based businesses — and matched by financial support from the state, is meeting those goals.

More than 7,000 current students and graduates have benefited from the program, which is open to state high school graduates or those with a GED whose family income is equal to or less than 125 percent of the state’s median income and have a 2.75 grade point average at the time of application. First- and second-year students can receive up to $2,500 each academic year, with the scholarship increasing to up to $5,000 for the junior year and up to $7,500 for the student’s senior year.

(Applications can be made online at www.waopportunity scholarship.org, but this year’s deadline is 5 p.m. today.)

There’s obvious demand to expand the program.

More than 3,750 students applied for the 1,450 scholarships offered in 2016. Of those eligible applicants, 60 percent were women, 60 percent were students of color and about 38 percent identified themselves as being under-represented minorities in their particular field of study.

As of November, more than 2,200 have graduated with bachelor’s degrees. Of those, 83 percent are employed within their field of study or are seeking an advanced degree; 91 percent were employed within nine months of graduating; and 91 percent who found employment were working in Washington state.

Numbers like that, and pledges and donations from the private sector totaling nearly $100 million, prompted Opportunity Scholarship to expand its bachelor’s degree program to expand from 1,450 scholarships in 2016 to 1,850 this year.

But a segment of the student population has been ineligible for the program: students who are studying for professional and technical certificates and degrees typically offered at the state’s two-year community and technical colleges.

House Bill 1452 would create a companion to the Opportunity Scholarship, run by the same nonprofit, called the Pathways Scholarship, that would offer scholarships to those students.

Additionally, the legislation would allow students who are not eligible to apply for federal student aid to complete a state student aid application to be considered for the scholarship.

The program would have the added benefit of opening up more financial assistance for students studying STEM and health care programs at Everett and Edmonds community colleges.

The scholarship borrows its name from the type of employment recently identified by the Washington Roundtable as being in particular need of graduates, providing a pathway to careers. Between now and 2021, the state can expect about 740,000 job openings. Of those, about 260,000 will seek those graduates with bachelor’s degrees and higher; but 330,000 will seek those with certificates or other degrees from community and technical colleges.

Just as the Opportunity Scholarship offers industry mentorships and assistance in securing a good-paying job after college, the Pathways Scholarship for community and technical college students will be key to connecting the state’s young adults with those jobs.

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