Do Opportunity Scholarships pick winners, losers?

Removing barriers to higher education is one of the few places there’s bipartisan agreement (at least in theory) in Olympia. And the biggest barrier – by far – to higher education is high tuition.

But Washington state’s recession-induced budget shortfall, balanced exclusively with cuts, has crippled higher education, and brought about steep tuition increases every year since 2008.

state-and-student-share-of-tuition-uwThese recent tuition increases – coming on the heels of two decades’ worth of steady disinvestment in higher ed – have tripled the student cost of tuition at the University of Washington (and other state colleges and universities) since 1981.

Enter Microsoft and Boeing. Last year, these giants of industry announced contributions of $5 million each for the next five years – to be matched by the state for a total of $100 million – for an “Opportunity Scholarship” program. This program will give students from lower- and middle-income families scholarships to “attain bachelor’s degrees in high employer demand fields including science, technology, engineering, math (STEM) and health care.”

What’s not to like? After all, lower- and middle-income families are bearing the brunt of tuition increases, and this scholarship offering will surely help.

But something doesn’t quite add up. Recall that in the no-so-distant past, these corporate heavyweights – and their leaders – publicly opposed increasing investment in higher education. Their argument in 2010, direct from the lips of Opportunity Scholarship chair and Microsoft General Council Brad Smith, was that I-1098 would have the opposite effect: “I-1098 will make it harder to attract talent and create additional jobs in Washington State.”

So while the leaders of Boeing and Microsoft “support” higher education, they don’t support it enough to pay a little more in taxes – a daring stance given the effective federal tax rates of their companies hovers around 0%.

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What do Microsoft and Boeing offer instead of public investments to increase access to higher ed in general? A state-subsidized scholarship program that excludes all students not pursuing STEM degrees. To top it off, the “Opportunity Scholarship” program effectively removes $50 million in funds from the higher education budget and earmarks them for STEM students. Other fields of study aren’t a priority for this public-private partnership.

What’s worse, the real value of these Opportunity Scholarships is still up in the air. Without public investments that prioritize higher education for everyone, a scholarship of just $1,000 (to a pool of only 3,000 students) is less than 10% of the cost of tuition at the UW. The scholarships provide nice political cover for Boeing and Microsoft, but given ballooning tuition costs, it won’t do much mitigate “sticker shock” for many high school grads.

University of Washington tuition, 1989-2011Washington needs more degree earners to support our state’s economy. By 2018, 23% of jobs in Washington state will require a 4-year degree or higher, and nearly half will require some college or postsecondary training. And all of the data show college grads earn more money and have lower rates of unemployment.

The choice to earn a degree shouldn’t be limited to those interested in STEM or students with wealthy parents. Increasing access to higher education is a public good. Washington needs to invest in our colleges and universities to train not just engineers and scientists, but also therapists, doctors, counselors, lawyers, artists, teachers and more. But picking winners and losers with public funds is the wrong way to go about it.

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