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 effort is the new focus of the Washington State Initiative, which supports the foundation’s state-specific education programs. Previous efforts have included establishing educational partnerships south of Seattle and supporting schools’ COVID-19 responses.
According to the foundation, only 61% of Washington high school graduates enroll in a post-secondary program immediately, below the national average of 69%. At the same time, government financial aid programs such as the Washington College Grant are among the most generous in the country.
The low percentage of Washington students going to college has recently caught the attention of tech leaders looking for native graduates. Between 2024 and 2029, around 70% of all projected open positions in the state will require some education beyond high school.
The foundation’s team spent the last year visiting community members, educators, and leaders in the state to evaluate how they can help increase enrollment in apprenticeships, technical training, certificate programs, and one- to four-year programs.
In a phone call with reporters announcing the program this week, Angela Jones, director of the Washington State Initiative, said the new initiative will focus on supporting the “transitional space” between high school and postsecondary education.
“We want to work with local schools, community organizations, colleges and students to help make this transition happen,” Jones said. The organization is also committed to asking students about their needs.
Early next year, the initiative will invite regional organizations to apply for a “learning network” that will explore why students are not enrolling in postsecondary programs and consider solutions. Jones said applicants must have experience supporting students from low-income or rural backgrounds and indigenous, Black and Latino students.
Next, the initiative will focus on supporting a few regions. His team will also work on statewide solutions, such as streamlining the application process for financial aid.
The new program draws on similar work going on at Washington STEM, the educational nonprofit that Jones previously led. According to a study by the organization, nearly 90% of high school students in Washington say they want to pursue a postsecondary program after graduation, but only 50% receive a credential.
The research also found disparities between educator expectations and student ambitions. In Yakima Valley, nearly 90% of students aspire to post-secondary education, but only 48% of school staff believe it. While educators thought that social media was the key to reaching students, students preferred in-class information.
“Ultimately, we’re working to create well-lit pathways to post-secondary credentials and break this bias that adults may have,” said Jenée Myers Twitchell, Washington STEM chief impact officer, during the press conference. She added that all school staff, not just counselors, should have a background in communicating such information.
The new program differs from the Gates Foundation’s wider education effort nationwide, which includes plans to spend $1.1 billion on K-12 education over the next four years with an emphasis on math. The national program will continue to invest in separate programs in the state.
Since its founding in 2000, the foundation has spent a total of nearly $900 million on education from kindergarten through all of its Washington state initiatives.
Michael Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, the state agency that oversees higher education, said the new effort aligns with similar efforts being undertaken by the state of Washington.
Washington is poised to provide approximately $6 million in grants to local and regional groups to support post-secondary enrollment. During the press conference, Meotti said the state is working on a program to offer free public college to Washington residents living in SNAP (food voucher) assistance households.
Meotti said Washington spends about $440 million a year on state financial aid programs and much more to support public colleges and universities. The new Gates Foundation funding will help “maximize the return on investment of more than a billion dollars,” he said.
“It is one thing to build the structure of an opportunity for people to use. It’s another thing for them to realize that you’re there, working for them and aiming to help them,” Meotti added.