SEATTLE/SOUTH KING COUNTY – A workforce development program unique to Washington is helping put high-demand postsecondary STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) degrees within reach for 1,450 students from across the state— 342 of which are high school students from the South King County and Seattle.

This week Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS) announced the 2016-17 awardees, who will receive up to $22,500 over five years along with additional skill-building and professional development support—all part of an unprecedented commitment by state government and private-sector employers to increase the number of homegrown graduates prepared for the jobs key to our economy.

Newly selected scholars come from every legislative district in the state. Fifty-seven percent are female, 64 percent identify as students of color, and an incredible 69 percent are the first in their family to attend college. All are pursuing bachelor’s degrees in approved majors in the STEM and health care fields—where companies remain critically short on talent.

“These students represent the future of our state,” said Naria K. Santa Lucia, executive director for WSOS. “And because of that, we are laser-focused on helping these students persist in their major, graduate on time and launch their careers here at home. We are delighted to meet them and champion their success over the coming years.”

While the demand for talent in these fields remains high, so too does the need for financial aid, as low- and middle-income students continue to face overwhelming tuition and living costs.

WSOS saw a 77 percent increase over last year’s submitted applications. Partner organizations Washington STEM supported the statewide effort to reach all eligible students.

This increase is a result, in part, of strategic collaboration with local STEM Networks, managed by Washington STEM. The South King County STEM Network is staffed by Community Center for Education Results and part of the regional Road Map Project.

Beginning last fall, the South King County STEM Network partnered with WSOS to promote the program and increase the number local applicants. The 342 high school students were selected to receive the scholarship for the 2016-17 academic year, making them eligible to receive up to a total of $7,695,000 in scholarships throughout their time in college.

“The WSOS helps fill the financial gap for our students in Washington State entering post-secondary institutions,” said Kendrick Glover, Program Manager of the Puget Sound College and Career Network. “Along with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and Washington Application for State Financial Aid (WASFA) to help achieve the students end goal, scholarships like College Bound, Merit, and WSOS are critical in eliminating this barrier of financial need.”

WSOS was created in 2011 to address both rising tuition costs and a lack of local STEM talent prepared for industry demands. Per the legislation that governs the program, the State matches private dollars raised by WSOS, including founding partners Microsoft and Boeing. To date, the program has raised nearly $95 million from the private sector.

The vast majority of the funds raised have been over the past year. Last April, Seattle Angel Investor Gary Rubens contributed $20 million through his Rubens Family Foundation followed by contributions of $11 million and $10 million in September from the Ballmer Family Foundation and Microsoft, respectively. The State has upheld their commitment in matching all private funds raised so far.

A skills gap study released by business advocacy group Washington Roundtable and international consulting firm Boston Consulting Group in 2013 found there are more than 25,000 “acute” unfilled jobs in our state – jobs that have been unfilled for three months or more due to a lack of qualified candidates.  Eighty percent of those jobs are in the high-skill and high-demand STEM and health care fields.

The gap has been projected to reach 50,000 jobs by next year. Ninety percent of those openings will be in health care and STEM roles.

More than 5,400 students have received support from WSOS and nearly 1,500 have graduated since the program began. Three-quarters of graduates are employed or seeking an advanced degree in their field.

Nearly 90 percent took jobs here in Washington.

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