Microsoft, Ballmers Enable More STEM Students, But Shortages Remain

Aspiring computer scientists, engineers, and health care professionals of modest means in Washington state have a better shot at a college education thanks to $21 million donated to a state scholarship fund by Microsoft and its former CEO, Steve Ballmer, matched dollar-for-dollar by the state.

But even as a computer science education—a sure path to a job in the state’s gangbusters tech economy—is brought within reach of more people, Washington has an ongoing shortage of seats in the state’s higher education system for students pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, especially computer science.

Ballmer, along with his wife Connie Ballmer, made an $11 million gift to the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship. Microsoft gave $10 million in its third major contribution to local STEM education efforts this year. In April, Gary Rubens, a Seattle angel investor, contributed $20 million to the scholarship fund. The private contributions will be matched by state money thanks to a $41 million appropriation in the current state budget, bringing the total public and private contributions to the scholarship fund this year alone to $82 million.

The Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS) was established by the legislature in 2011 to help students from low- and middle-income families pursue degrees in STEM and health care fields in the face of rapidly rising tuition. Even with tuition reductions enacted by lawmakers this year, 2015-16 tuition and fees at University of Washington—$11,839—are up 25 percent since the 2010-11 academic year, according to analysis from the Seattle-based Economic Opportunity Institute. (They’ve just posted a great interactive graph of tuition data from all of Washington’s public higher education institutions going back to 1965.)

Students from families earning up to 125 percent of median family income in the state—about $58,700 in 2014, according to a projection from the state Office of Financial Management—are eligible. The scholarship is premised in part on the extra academic work required to earn a degree in a STEM field or healthcare, and the difficulty that presents to students who might have to balance school and a job to support themselves.

Microsoft and Boeing donated $25 million each to get the program off the ground in 2011.

The latest scholarship donations should put a computer science degree within reach of more Washington students. “We will be able to support 6,100 more students over the next five years,” said scholarship executive director Naria Santa Lucia in a news release. In 2014, the program awarded more than 780 scholarships.

Beginning almost 10 years ago, Microsoft made STEM education “its signature hometown philanthropic focus,” wrote Brad Smith, the software giant’s general counsel and executive vice president for legal and corporate affairs, in a blog post Wednesday announcing the donation.

Smith.

Smith.

He recounts the story of Yarelly Gomez, the daughter of agricultural workers in the Yakima Valley, and now a junior at the University of Washington on a Washington State Opportunity Scholarship. “Today the same young woman who was working minimum wage jobs just a few years ago is majoring in computing and software engineering, poised to enter one of the most vibrant, high-paying sectors of our economy,” Smith wrote.

But as student demand for STEM education has grown, the state’s higher education system hasn’t kept up, particularly in computer science, the field with the largest gap between job openings and a local supply of graduates. And it’s not just a Washington state problem. Smith cites research from Code.org, the Seattle-based nonprofit working to give every student in every school access to computer science education, forecasting a million more technology jobs than qualified applicants by 2020.

“The challenge is capacity, particularly in high quality programs at the bachelors level,” said Susannah Malarkey, executive director of the Technology Alliance. “There is far more demand—from top students—than there is available space.”

Her organization’s latest benchmarking report (PDF), which tracks Washington’s performance against peers in areas including research capacity, investment, and education, found that in 2013, Washington ranked 39th out of the 50 states in science and engineering bachelor’s degree production per capita. (This, in part, may be why Seattle is experiencing so much angst about its current growth spurt and influx of new residents. Local technology giants and startup companies are recruiting people trained in computer science from around the world. What if more of them came from around the block?)

At the University of Washington, home of the state’s premiere computer science program—indeed, one of the best in the country—demand for the computer science and engineering major from incoming freshmen this fall is second only to business administration, and not by much.

Interest in computer science among incoming UW freshmen has skyrocketed. But Lazowska says these figures may understate the situation, as many students decide to pursue a CS major after taking an introductory course.

Interest in computer science among incoming UW freshmen has skyrocketed. But Lazowska says these figures may understate the situation, as many students decide to pursue a CS major after taking an introductory course.

Legislative support has helped the UW boost the capacity of its computer science bachelors program to 310 degrees a year, after more than a decade stuck at about 160 a year, and plans are in place to grow further, said Ed Lazowska, Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the UW.

“That still falls FAR short of student demand,” Lazowska said via e-mail. “And we are up against space constraints—we need not only additional enrollment funding from the legislature (because tuition falls far short of covering costs), but our current building, which we occupied in 2003, is full to the brim.”

He added: “There needs to be a place that prepares Washington’s kids for Washington’s leading-edge jobs, at a price that Washington’s families can afford. That’s what we do. There are far, far more meritorious kids who deserve this opportunity. We desperately need to grow.”

Microsoft earlier this year kicked off a fundraising campaign for a new computer science building at UW with a $10 million donation. It also committed $40 million to the Global Innovation Exchange, a joint effort of the UW and Tsinghua University to create a graduate-level educational institution in Bellevue focused on technology, design, and entrepreneurship. Smith has been instrumental in guiding Microsoft’s local contributions.

Lazowska calls him “a saint.” “As an individual, as a representative of Microsoft, and through the company, he has done many, many things in recent years that will make our region far stronger, now and for decades to come,” he said.

(Malarkey and Lazowska, both Xconomists, will speak at Seattle 2035, Xconomy’s conference on the future of our innovation economy. Topics include solutions to the STEM education shortfall in Washington, as well as ways to increase participation by women and minorities.)

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

Trending on Xconomy