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University of Washington computer science professor Ed Lazowska implores the Seattle Tech Meetup crowd to stand up for better education in Washington.

The incredible talent that the University of Washington pumps out every year was on display during Tuesday’s Seattle Tech Meetup, as five startups with UW ties gave five-minute pitches to the crowd at the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science and Engineering.

But unfortunately for the state, the UW is one of the few bright spots amidst an otherwise struggling education system with regard to producing tech talent. While Washington ranks fourth in the nation for tech-related companies, the state comes in a disappointing 46th for participation in science and engineering graduate programs.

seattletechmeetup123.jpgAnd that’s exactly why Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering at the UW, stood at the podium as the final speaker on Tuesday and implored the crowd to start supporting education in Washington. 

“My ask is for you to become advocates for better education at every level in this state,” Lazowska said.

He asked the audience to raise their hands if they were from Washington — the vast majority of them grew up elsewhere and have moved here. It was a perfect example, Lazowska said, of how Washington is the No. 1 importer in the nation per capita of bachelors-educated individuals.

Yet while it’s great that people come here for the abundance of jobs, the state isn’t exactly doing a good job of grooming homegrown talent.

“Our state is the ass end of the donkey in just about every aspect of education and in just about every aspect of preparing Washington’s kids for Washington’s jobs,” Lazowska said.

He has stats and facts to back that up: One-third of the kids in Washington who are eligible for Head Start or other Pre-K programs are denied access because the state doesn’t provide adequate funding. Among tech states, Washington has the highest dropout rate from 9th-grade to college. And depending on what you count, Lazowska said, the state ranks somewhere between 35th and 49th in the country in bachelors education participation rate per capita.

“It’s a serious problem and policymakers will do what will get them re-elected,” Lazowska said of the education dilemma. “Our job as citizens is to let them know that we want Washington kids to be getting Washington jobs.”

Washington has pipeline issues from secondary to postsecondary education.
Washington has pipeline issues from secondary to postsecondary education.

One promising step the state took recently was allowing Washington high schoolers to count computer science classes as a math or science requirement toward high school graduation, becoming the tenth state to do so.

In terms of the startup community, education is key when it comes to building out the ecosystem here and cultivating future entrepreneurs that work in the region after graduation. While the UW’s premier computer science school produces lots of high-quality graduates right in Seattle, the acceptance rate is low and hundreds of would-be programmers are turned away every year. The problem is that there aren’t many other places around the city to earn a degree in STEM-related fields.

startupseattleThat’s why education is a focus of Mayor Mike McGinn’s new startup initiative. Many here support the idea of a tech-focused private university to offer budding local engineers more opportunities to be educated. As part of his effort to transform New York into a “mid-Atlantic Silicon Valley,” NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg put huge resources behind Cornell, NYU, and Columbia to expand engineering programs in the city and so far, it’s certainly helping the startup scene there.

But Seattle does not have several established universities in the area like NYC and perhaps one thing that could really help the city is multiple second-tier schools. While Seattle has a premier institution in the UW, there’s not much else here churning out talented graduates. McGinn did cite Northeastern University’s move to Seattle as one example of a school realizing a market niche not being filled.

“That’s a real benefit to Boston and New York City,” McGinn said of multiple higher-ed institutions. “It’s something we’d love here, but that takes time.”

But Lazowska’s message on Tuesday was focused not so much on the lack of universities in the region, but rather on how students here are educated before arriving at college.

“My message to the audience was this: Before long, these will be your kids we’re talking about,” he said. “What are you going to do to improve the situation?”

Previously on GeekWire: UW partners with non-profit edX to offer free online courses 

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