SEATTLE-The Boeing Co. and Microsoft Corp. announced a joint commitment to support efforts to increase the number of Washington students earning bachelor's degrees. The state's two largest private employers are pledging $25 million apiece over the next five years to the new public-private Washington Opportunity Scholarship program and endowment signed into law today by Gov. Christine Gregoire. Together with matching state contributions under the new program, this will raise $100 million for scholarships for low- and middle-income students, as a first step toward creating a billion-dollar endowment by the end of this decade.

"These new contributions help forge a partnership between the public and private sectors to put higher education on a stronger financial footing and enable more students to go to college," says Microsoft general counsel and senior vice president Brad Smith, who chaired a Higher Education Funding Task Force appointed by Gov. Gregoire last year. "Given tougher state budget climates here and across the country, we need new and creative steps to ensure that our colleges remain open to talented students from all economic backgrounds. This new initiative gives our state and our students a new opportunity to develop the skills that a globally competitive economy will require."

"Technology leadership and innovation define and distinguish Washington state, and we need creative solutions to ensure businesses across the state have a pipeline of talent to remain competitive in a global economy," says Jim Albaugh, Boeing Commercial Airplanes president and CEO. "The reforms approved by state lawmakers, including this public-private endowment, represent a very positive step toward ensuring our young people have economic and intellectual opportunity into the future."

At the beginning of this year, Gov. Gregoire's Higher Education Funding Task Force recommended to the legislature the creation of a public-private higher education endowment. Under the new legislation (HB 2088) spearheaded by Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver, the state will create a nonprofit Opportunity Scholarship Board to oversee two new scholarship funds. The first of these funds will begin providing scholarships as early as December 2011 to state students who intend to pursue bachelor's degrees at public universities and colleges in Washington, while the second will build a long-term endowment with earnings that will provide an ongoing source of financial aid.

The board, made up of private sector representatives appointed by the governor and legislators, will be responsible for establishing student eligibility criteria, application process and scholarship amounts. Students from families with incomes of up to 125% of the state median income will be eligible to apply for the scholarships, which will be focused primarily on high-demand fields such as healthcare, manufacturing, science, mathematics and technology.

Initially, at least 50% of the donations will go to providing immediate scholarships, but after $20 million is raised for that account, donors will have the option of specifying whether the money will go to immediate scholarships or the long-term scholarship endowment. The state will match private contributions to the two scholarship accounts beginning in 2014 with a cap of $50 million annually. The goal is to raise $1 billion during the coming decade, based on a combination of private donations and matching contributions from the state.

"Washington is the first state in the nation to create a scholarship program like this," Probst says. "We hope that other companies will follow Microsoft and Boeing's incredible example, so we can offer 10,000 scholarships or more before Christmas of this year."