The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will provide $75 million over the next four years to increase enrollment in post-secondary education programs in Washington state.
The endeavor is the new focus of the foundation’s Washington State Initiative, which supports state-specific education programs. Previous efforts include building education partnerships south of Seattle and supporting school COVID-19 responses.
Only 61% of students graduating from high school in Washington immediately enroll in a post-secondary program, below the national average of 69%, according to the foundation. At the same time, state financial aid programs like the Washington College Grant are among the most generous in the country.
The low percentage of Washington students that go to college recently caught the attention of tech leaders looking for home-grown graduates. Nearly 70% of all projected job openings in the state between 2024 and 2029 will require some education beyond high school.
The foundation’s team spent the last year visiting community members, educators and leaders across the state to assess how to help increase enrollment in apprenticeships, technical education, certificate programs, and one- to four-year programs.
The new endeavor will focus on shoring up the “transition space” between high school and post-secondary education, said Washington State Initiative director Angela Jones in a call with reporters this week announcing the program.
“We want to work together with local schools, community organizations, colleges and students to help make that transition happen,” said Jones. The organization is also committed to hearing from students about their needs.
Early next year, the initiative will invite regional organizations to apply to a “learning network” that will explore why students don’t enroll in post-secondary programs and consider solutions. Applicants should have experience supporting students from low-income or rural backgrounds and indigenous, Black and Latino students, said Jones.
Later, the initiative will zero in on supporting several regions. Its team will also work on state-wide solutions such as easing the application process for financial aid.
The new program is informed by similar work underway at the education nonprofit Washington STEM, which Jones previously led. Nearly 90% of Washington’s high school students say they want to pursue a postsecondary program after graduation, but only 50% earn a credential, according to research by the organization.
The research also found disparities between educator expectations and student ambitions. In Yakima Valley, nearly 90% of students aspired to post-secondary education but school staff believed that only 48% do. While educators thought social media was key to reaching students, students preferred in-class information.
“Ultimately we’re working to create well-lit pathways to post-secondary credentials and to interrupt that bias that adults might have,” said Washington STEM chief impact officer Jenée Myers Twitchell during the press call. All school staff, not just counselors, should have the background to convey such information, she added.
The new program is distinct from the Gates Foundation’s larger nationwide education effort, which includes plans to spend $1.1 billion over the next four years in K-12 education with an emphasis on mathematics. The national program will continue to invest in separate programs in the state.
Since its launch in 2000, the foundation has spent nearly $900 million in total on education across all its initiatives in Washington state, from pre-K onwards.
The new endeavor dovetails with similar efforts underway by Washington state, said Michael Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, the state agency overseeing higher education.
Washington is gearing up to make about $6 million of grants available to local and regional groups to support post-secondary enrollment. And the state is working on a program to offer free public college to Washington residents in households that receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits, said Meotti during the press call.
Washington spends about $440 million per year on state financial aid programs, and a lot more on supporting public colleges and universities, said Meotti. The new Gates Foundation funding will help “maximize the return on that billion dollar-plus investment,” he said.
“It is one thing to build the structure of an opportunity for people to use. It is another thing for them to understand it’s there, that it works for them and is intended to help them,” added Meotti.