“I have witnessed countless instances where a group of people willing to work selflessly together in the service of humanity has effectively changed things for the better.”
--Bill Gates, Sr., from his book Showing Up for Life
If there’s one thing that Bill Gates, Sr., taught us throughout his life, it’s the importance of being present and responsive in the communities we serve, and, as his quote reflects, just how much we can accomplish when we show up and work together.
Bill Gates, Sr., served as co-chair of the foundation from 2000 to 2020 and was our “north star,” shaping the foundation’s values, vision, and strategic direction and inspiring our mission through his belief that all lives have equal value.
The lessons he shared continue to resonate at the foundation, and they motivate me every day. I’ve taken those learnings to heart, and it has inspired my volunteer work here in Washington State from New Futures to The Make-A-Wish Foundation of Alaska & Washington to Seattle University.
Bill Gates, Sr.’s legacy and the foundation’s commitment to Washington State – home to the Gates family and the foundation’s headquarters – has shown up through our local investments over the past 20 years. Many of those initiatives were guided by Amy Carter, our Director of Community Engagement, and they include responsive grants to nonprofits focusing on housing security and homelessness, access to social services, racial equity, and early learning.
All of our efforts have been driven by two questions: what issues in our state need more attention right now, and where can the foundation have the most impact?
Last year, I introduced you to Angela Jones, the director of our Washington State team, who upon joining the foundation was tasked with helping us answer those questions against the backdrop of a pandemic that has impacted students’ educational and economic opportunities. Angela and her team began by listening to community stakeholders. After conversations with more than 200 educators, researchers, district leaders, parents, and community members, the team arrived at a clear vision centered on education.
Right now, only 61% of Washington state students transition directly from high school to postsecondary education, a rate that’s lower than the national average of 69%. This comes at a time when, according to the Washington Student Achievement Council, 70% of all jobs in the state require a postsecondary education. What’s most telling is that nearly 90% of the state’s high school students aspire to achieve an education after high school, but only 50% of them ever do.
As a foundation, we believe that everyone navigating our education systems and job markets should have the knowledge, skills, and agency needed to thrive in their communities. It’s with that grounding, input from local and regional partners, and Angela’s leadership, that we are launching a new Washington State strategy focused solely on this critical education transition point.
Our approach aims to increase the number of Washington State students who enroll in a postsecondary program right after high school – whether that’s an apprenticeship program, career certificate, or two- or four-year college degree. Research shows that students who enroll in a postsecondary program directly after high school are more likely to complete it.
With ongoing input from community stakeholders, we will focus on removing barriers, such as navigating the complex financial aid process or a lack of access to technology that prevents students from continuing their education – especially for Black, Latino, and Indigenous students, as well as students from low-income backgrounds and rural communities who typically face greater obstacles to continuing their education and have been systematically excluded from opportunity.
Over the next four years, the foundation’s Washington State team will invest approximately $75M to support locally led solutions that align with community-identified needs and priorities as follows:
- In early 2023, the foundation will issue an open invitation for regional collaborations to join what we’re calling a “learning network” to explore why students in their areas don’t enroll in a postsecondary program and begin to test solutions that address these barriers and student interests. Applicants will need to reflect a partnership between a K-12 district and at least one other organization, whether that’s a youth-serving non-profit or a college or university in the region.
- After learning from this early work, we’ll go deeper in three to five regions in 2024—providing additional technical assistance and grants to further support community-identified solutions to improve postsecondary enrollment.
- At the same time, we will also explore other statewide solutions that help all students advance through college and career pathways after high school. For example, we will work with partners to help more students and their families complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FASFA) or the Washington Application for State Financial Aid (WASFA) form—along with advocating at the federal level for continued simplification of the FAFSA process.
- Through all this work, we will bring education funders together to find collective ways to leverage our resources, and we’ll invest in ways that elevate student perspectives, so these efforts are aligned with students’ aspirations.
It’s encouraging to note that existing college-going efforts around the state are showing promise, such as the Chehalis Foundation and Chehalis School District partnership with Centralia College to create a college-going culture for W.F. West High School students. Between 2017 and 2021, direct enrollment rates in Centralia College increased from 55% to 63.1%.
The West Valley School District in Spokane — which serves more students from low-income backgrounds (51%) than the state average (42%) — is also seeing postsecondary enrollment rates higher than the state average. The district invested in financial aid outreach to students and families, and more than 70% of students in 2018 completed the FAFSA or WASFA form, higher than the 47% of students across the state who completed the application that year.
As I reflect on our statewide efforts over the past 20 years, the benefits of having a Washington State team that consists of people from and embedded in local communities, and everything that we’ve learned as a foundation from Bill Gates, Sr., I feel energized about our new strategy. Today, we have a core set of education expertise and key learnings gleaned from our partners across the country in hand that we can bring to bear in our home state.
If Bill Gates Sr., were to ask me today whether the foundation is showing up in Washington State, I would respond with a resounding “yes” -- and that we’re showing up stronger than ever with local partners to help students achieve their aspirations, complete a postsecondary education, and lead fulfilling lives.