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Gates Foundation commits $75 million to help Washington kids get to college

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Nov. 30—The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will spend $75 million over the next four years to help Washington students continue their education after high school.

The new initiative, announced at a Tuesday news conference, comes as the foundation begins focusing its statewide efforts on education — in particular, high schoolers’ transition, or lack thereof, to college or trade and apprenticeship programs.

In doing so, the foundation is adding its voice to an array of education and state officials alarmed about a precipitous drop in postsecondary education enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic, worsening Washington’s already low rate of sending high school graduates on.

Between spring 2020 and spring 2022, enrollment in Washington’s colleges, universities and trade programs fell 10.7%, compared with 7.4% nationally. Pre-pandemic, 60% of Washington high school graduates started a postsecondary program within a year, six points behind the national average.

“We live here. We work here in Washington. We raise our families here,” said Angela Jones, director of the Seattle-based foundation’s Washington team, as she explained its investment in local education. The foundation, which helps fund The Seattle Times’ Education Lab, also distributes grants dealing with homelessness, the pandemic response and other issues through a separate team focused solely on King, Pierce and Snohomish counties.

Diverging from a top-down approach that has ignited criticism in the past, the foundation is not laying out a detailed game plan. Jones said that as her team traveled the state over the past year, “our constituents told us that they don’t necessarily want us to come in and say: ‘Boy, do we have a solution for you.’ “

The Washington effort, for instance, will not center on improving math education, though the foundation is pouring $1.1 billion into doing so nationally.

While the foundation will communicate lessons learned nationally, it will use the $75 million to bring local organizations together to come up with their own regional solutions, Jones said. The foundation will then help fund those ideas, going deeper in three to five regions of the state.

Michael Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, a state agency, said the Gates investment is modest compared to the roughly $2.5 billion the state spends annually to support state colleges and universities and run one of the country’s most generous financial aid programs.

Speaking at the news conference, Meotti said the Gates initiative is nonetheless meaningful because it promises to help Washington’s postsecondary infrastructure “come alive for people on the ground.”

The “if we build it, they will come” maxim just doesn’t work, Meotti said.

That became abundantly clear after the state reworked its financial aid program in 2019, allowing far more students to qualify and removing caps tied to limited funds. College enrollment still went down, not up.

Washington also ranks near the bottom of states when it comes to the percentage of students who complete the form required for federal financial aid.

The state is trying new things, such as making students who receive food stamps automatically eligible for state financial aid, with no extra paperwork required. The goal is to let students know as early as eighth grade, Meotti said.

Most of the state’s public universities and The Evergreen State College also offer guaranteed admission to students who have a certain grade-point average and have completed necessary coursework.

Yet, Meotti said, all that won’t bring the desired result unless societal messaging changes for people who believe college isn’t for them, including many low-income students and students of color. The Gates initiative can help make that change, he said, along with an expected $22 million in state-funded grants the achievement council plans to distribute over the next few years to increase postsecondary enrollment and degree completion.

Jenée Myers Twitchell, chief impact officer of nonprofit Washington STEM, added during the news conference that local strategies can help students and families make sense of letters they receive about guaranteed college acceptance and financial aid.

Washington STEM found in a recent survey that students statewide wanted school staff, not just counselors, to tell them “early and often” about postsecondary options, Myers Twitchell said.

Contrary to what many educators assume, the survey revealed, students also want that information in person, during the school day — not on TikTok or other social media.

Myers Twitchell said the survey exposed an even more important gap in educators’ understanding: They believed about half of their students wanted to continue their education after high school. In fact, nearly 90% of students said they aspired to do so.

There’s still a lot more to learn about young people’s desires and choices. College officials locally and nationally have been puzzling over the recent steep enrollment declines, most pronounced among men.

The Gates Foundation commissioned a survey of high school students nationwide, including in Washington, who decided not to attend college. Common reasons why included the cost and questions students had about the value of higher education.

At the same time, many said college was a way to achieve their life goals. Something, the foundation’s Jones noted, isn’t adding up.

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