2 scholarship programs aid the middle class


SEATTLE — A popular book a few years ago advised middle class parents to forget about saving for college. The author argued that since the federal government deducts a percentage of savings from the amount of financial aid for which a child could qualify, they could lose money in the end.

The author failed, however, to predict the Great Recession. Parents looking at college bills today can’t do a lot with the fact that their child qualifies for aid if the state and their colleges do not have enough money to help anyone but the neediest students.

Help for middle class families has not completely disappeared in Washington state. More than 3,000 scholarships for students pursuing technical or health care careers were announced this past week and more than 40 percent of those Opportunity Scholarships went to kids from families that earn $50,000 or more.

Surprisingly, the competition wasn’t that tough for these $1,000 renewable awards — only 5,621 students applied and the scholarships were handed out to the applicants with the best grade point averages.

Opportunity Scholarships are not the only way middle class Washington students are finding cash for college these days. With some hard work and creativity — and help from another state program — they are finding other aid as well.

A few years ago Washington state set up a scholarship matchmaking website that helps students find scholarships for which they are qualified. But it’s still up to students to take the information they find on washboard.org and write the essays and gather the information and turn that information into cash.

Nearly $47 million in scholarships from 247 organizations have been posted on the scholarship board this year. About 100,000 students have logged this year and about 40,000 are actively using the site, according to Mary Beth Lambert, spokeswoman for College Spark Washington, which runs washboard.org for the state.

Lambert said the board is a great resource for middle class students because 57 percent of the scholarships posted on the site do not require students to demonstrate a financial need.

And they’re not all for overachievers either. Only a fifth of the scholarships require a GPA over 3.0 and many givers are more interested in whether the student is a talented athlete or musician or volunteer.

The end of May is not a great time to be looking for scholarships. Many deadlines have passed, but Lambert said new scholarships will pop up on the board throughout the summer, so students shouldn’t give up yet.

“You need to look early and often. If you have a kid who is a senior and they haven’t start to look for scholarships, it’s not too late,” she said.

Of course, finding a scholarship to apply for is just one part of the process. Students usually have to write an essay, gather letters of recommendation and get a copy of their high school transcript.

“We all spend way too much time on Facebook. Surely you can spend 10-15 minutes a week,” Lambert says to students who say they are too busy with school work or other activities.

Senior year of high school isn’t the only time to seek scholarships, she added, because “tuition is the gift that keeps on giving. You’re going to keep paying and paying and paying.”

There’s always the Opportunity Scholarship next year, and that’s one that doesn’t require an essay or even letters of recommendations.

You just need to meet the income requirements — 125 percent of the median income level or up to $110,200 for a family of four — and be enrolled full-time in a Washington college or university with plans of majoring in science, technology, engineering, math or health care, and need to fill out the federal financial aid form.

Last year, the state contributed $5 million and Boeing and Microsoft each pledged $25 million over the next five years toward the Opportunity Scholarship endowment fund. A board which oversees the fund has set a goal to raise $1 billion from both the public and private sectors by 2020.

A fundraising campaign to significantly expand this scholarship program is set begin later this year.

“Our vision is to create the kind of scholarship program over time that will inspire more Washington students to pursue careers in high demand fields. This is a first step toward doing that,” said Microsoft general counsel and executive vice president Brad Smith, who is chair of the Opportunity Scholarship board.

Smith said the program addresses a real world problem that companies see every day: not enough qualified people to fill the jobs they have.

He expects the fundraising campaign to get more money from generous corporations won’t be a real hard sell because they will want to do something to help the community and their own future.

And it probably won’t hurt that some current and former executives of some of civically minded companies are already sitting on the scholarship board, including Costco, Delta, Weyerhaeuser, Puget Sound Energy, Boeing and Microsoft.