By Aaron Allen
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation recently announced that the organization is investing $75 million to revitalize, energize and invigorate the process of applying to and attending college and simplifying the pathways for students to go to college.
In a statement announcing the investment, the foundation said “everyone should have access to the opportunities they need to design the future they want. That core belief drives the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s work around the world and in our home state of Washington, where we work at the local, regional, and state level.”
“Across the state, we focus on education, which we believe is essential to giving young people control over their own lives today and into the future,” the statement continued. “Nearly 90 percent of Washington’s high schoolers say they want to continue their education after high school. But only 50 percent of Washington’s high school graduates today complete postsecondary programs. Together with the local schools, colleges, and organizations that know their communities best, we believe we can help close that gap.
According to Angela Jones, Director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Washington State Initiative, the foundation will work with local and regional partners to help students see a clear path to success in the careers they choose, with an emphasis on young people who face the highest barriers, including minority and low-income students.
“We expect to spend around $75 million over four years to support education work in Washington state,” says Jones. “We want every student in Washington to succeed, but we also want to make sure we’re centering those that face the highest barriers to educational and economic opportunities; in particular Black students, Latino students, Indigenous students, students from low-income background and our rural communities.”
College can be important for many reasons, including increased career stability and the ability to make an impact on your community. With more careers today requiring advanced education, a college degree can be critical to the success of people entering today’s workforce. However, navigating the process of getting into college can be daunting for students who lack exposure to college prep/readiness programs and the resources and support to successfully apply for scholarships and financial aid.
“We are committed to this goal of trying to increase the educational attainment level of all Washington residents,” says Micheal Meotti, Executive Director of the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC). “Particularly to close the gaps and disparities that exist between equity populations in which people who are students of color, lower income households, things like that, there’s too many obstacles, and there are too many barriers in their way.”
That transition space between the end of one’s junior year in high school and graduation is where most students must do the work to best position themselves for college admission.
Statistics show that in Washington state 61 percent of students graduating from high school immediately enroll in a postsecondary program, which is below the national average of 69 percent. Out of that 61% only 50% complete a credential or degree program. Washington state ranks 48th out of 50 states in terms of students completing their federal financial aid forms otherwise known as FAFSA.
According to Jones, if students are not completing the financial aid process, they’re probably leaving money that they may need for college sitting on the table.
“We want to help work with partners, with students, with families to figuring out how we can help,” says Jones. “How we can help them get through the process to completion, providing that support, and also leaning in at the federal level to say, ‘how can we simplify the process [to apply for financial aid]?”
A recent study by Washington STEM shows that 90 percent of students in Washington state aspire to go on to a secondary education. However, in the same study school staff admits to only believing 48 percent aspire to pursue some sort of post-secondary education, that’s a 40 percent discrepancy in understanding student aspirations.
“We know historically that high schools and districts have been focused on graduation rates and that is important, but we also know through this work that students want the adults in their schools and in their communities to pay attention to their post-secondary plans and outcomes,” says Jenee Myers Twitchell, Chief Impact Officer for Washington STEM. “They need and they want information about education and training beyond high school, like about financial aid, about dual credit, and they want it early and often.”
“So, Washington STEM, along with our networks and partners, we’re embarking on scaling this work with schools and districts across the state, helping them explore college and career readiness efforts, and helping them identify opportunities to strengthen how schools support students in equitably preparing for life and education after high school graduation,” Twitchell adds.
Meotti agrees and says that it may take a little time, but that all of the partners in this initiative are committed to changing the narrative as it relates to all students having an equal access to post-secondary education.
“Over time, want to see these large statewide numbers and disparities close,” says Meotti. “And that there are many small building blocks to get there. And most people will be focused on their own work their own community, their own space. And we will work with them on that. But as a state, we very much want all this work to meld together in a way that achieves change that can be measured across the entire state.”