Seattle Colleges and Amazon create new opportunity for computer science degrees

North Seattle College campus. (Seattle Colleges Foundation Photo)

The pressing need for more computer science graduates combined with tech companies’ pledges to build more racially and ethnically diverse workforces are teeing up a new solution: Empower two-year colleges to offer computer science bachelor’s degrees.

Seattle-based Amazon has stepped up to help the effort. The tech giant recently committed $3 million to Washington state colleges and programs supporting their students.

“We see an opportunity for real growth through the community colleges,” said Victor Reinoso, global director of Amazon in the Community. “We want to reach the talent where it is, and not all of it is in traditional four-year state or private colleges.”

Victor Reinoso, global director of Amazon in the Community. (Photo via LinkedIn)

Two-year colleges in general attract a more diverse student body than many universities — about half of Washington’s community and technical college enrollees are students of color.

And computer science could use more diversity. Looking at the 1,883 Washington state computer science grads from the 2018-19 school year, only 5.6% were Hispanic students, 3.8% were African American, and less than 1% were Native American.

Last year state lawmakers passed new rules to increase access to the sought-after computer science degrees. Those arguing in favor included the University of Washington and Bellevue College — potential competitors for students — as well as Amazon, Microsoft, Tableau, Facebook, community groups and others.

In a survey of available tech jobs in Washington state — including software developers, quality assurance analysts and web developers — 48% of listings asked for the applicant to have attained a bachelor’s degree, though not specifically in computer science, according to a recent Chmura analysis.

The reality is that existing computer science programs can’t keep up with growing workforce demand. From 2010 to 2019 the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded to Washington graduates in computer fields more than tripled, but the state still imported four times more graduates than it produced because of employer demand.

Shouan Pan, chancellor of Seattle Colleges. (Seattle Colleges Photo)

“It’s important for us to demonstrate that community college can be a solution,” said Shouan Pan, chancellor of Seattle Colleges, which is comprised of North Seattle, Seattle Central and South Seattle colleges.

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Other local pathways to tech jobs include four-year degrees from private universities; free programs like Ada Developers Academy, Apprenti and Reskill Americans; and more than a dozen coding bootcamps.

Community colleges are more affordable and accessible than many options. The per-quarter cost for an in-state student at the UW is $4,026, while a Seattle Colleges student in the bachelor’s degree track would pay $2,322. If the student is a graduate of Seattle Public Schools, college tuition could be free for the first two years.

The $3 million from Amazon is being equally dispersed among three organizations:

  • Seattle Colleges Foundation, which will help the colleges create the new bachelor’s degree track. The three colleges currently offer two-year, associate of science degrees, while North Seattle also offers an associate degree with a computer science emphasis.
  • Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, a program matching private donations with state dollars, will use its gift to support students pursuing bachelor’s degrees in STEM and healthcare.
  • The Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, which oversees the state’s 34 community and technical colleges, and will use the money to help develop the four-year degree program.

For more than a decade, Washington’s colleges have offered four-year “applied” science degrees in fields including information technology, robotics and AI, health care programs, and education. In 2016, Bellevue College received permission to become the first community college in the state to offer a bachelor’s degree in computer science.

Seattle Colleges hopes to begin offering the degree starting this fall with an initial cohort of 30 students at North Seattle. The state board expects about a dozen more colleges to offer the degree beginning in 2023.

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Bellevue College’s S Building, home to some of its science courses. (Bellevue College Photo)

It’s going to be a challenge, but Bellevue College’s early success offers a path forward. The college just east of Seattle receives 130 to 140 applications to its computer science program each year and is accepting 72 students divided into three cohorts, with plans to increase the number of students as they’re able to grow their faculty.

One of Pan’s concerns is focused on attracting skilled computer science faculty who are willing to earn college salaries.

“We just can’t match the industry and what these folks would be making,” he said.

Fatma Cemile Serçe, computer science program chair at Bellevue College, said it’s doable.

Fatma Cemile Serçe, computer science program chair at Bellevue College. (Bellevue College Photo)

“The diversity of students that we serve, and the fact that we’re providing opportunities for them to achieve better lives, is a big draw for faculty,” Serçe said. “People want to make a difference, and being part of a public higher ed program is a great way to do that.”

Another important question is whether employers will hire the college grads. Again, Bellevue College’s experience provides a reason to be hopeful. The college has awarded 86 computer science degrees, and reports that 70% are employed in their field.

“We’ve found that they are competitive with graduates from universities, and many are employed as full-time software developers in big software companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, Oracle, T-Mobile, Expedia Group, etc.,” Serçe said.

The annual salary for an entry-level role as a computer systems administrator starts around $68,500, while a beginning computer programmer can earn $81,800 per year, according to data analyzed by Chmura and shared by the Spokane Workforce Council.

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For its part, Amazon said it would be glad to recruit at the colleges. Reinoso said the tech giant could also support mentoring opportunities and work with students to make sure they’re prepared for Amazon’s application process.

Reinoso also left the door open to additional financial support, and the possibility of partnering with community colleges outside of Amazon’s home state.

“We do think,” he said, “that there’s an opportunity nationally for this kind of thing to get replicated.”

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