Before enrolling last fall in the University of Washington’s Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science & Engineering, Mya Baker and Mia Huynh were not writing lines of code. Or building apps. Or dabbling with AI.
Baker was painting art, serving as a youth community council member, securing a grant for a school greenhouse and helping manage her grandfather’s healthcare. Huynh was competing in high school entrepreneurial programs.
But both students recognized the opportunities that a computer science program would offer — and particularly a program as highly-ranked as the Allen School.
“I can discover my interests,” Huynh said, “and use the skills from computer science to bring about change.”
They’re not alone in the realization. Some 7,587 freshman applicants to the UW for next year picked the Allen School as their top choice for a major — more than economics, political science, nursing, and mechanical engineering combined. The program attracts more students than any other UW major, and interest has increased more than 400% over the past decade.
But the Allen School has room for only 550 new undergraduates in the fall. Freshmen can apply for direct admission to the program, as did Baker and Huynh. It's highly competitive: only 7% of direct admission students were offered a spot in the Allen School, compared to 52% of applicants to the UW's College of Engineering, which houses the Allen School. (Additional spaces in the Allen School are available for existing UW undergrads and community college transfers.)
Champions of the Allen School say those numbers need to improve.
"It is not acceptable when only the most academically elite Washington student can gain admission to a computer science program that can prepare them for a great job,” said state Rep. Drew Hansen, former chair of the House Higher Education Committee.
Kitsap County's Hansen and others pushed for and secured $4 million of additional funding over the past two years to boost the Allen School's capacity by 100 students. Over the past decade, the program has received seven so-called budget provisos to increase its funding.
However, even as available spots still lag well behind student demand, advocates struggle to keep securing more money for the computer science program. There's strong competition for limited state funds across K-12 education, higher ed and within the UW itself. At the same time, Allen School proponents argue vehemently that Washington families, businesses and communities all benefit if the computer science school keeps expanding.
With this degree, “there's so many possibilities and opportunities,” Baker said.
'Training our kids'
Washington state has 333,000 tech jobs, including roles requiring tech skills and a variety of jobs at tech companies, according to a 2022 report from the Computing Technology Industry Association (CompTIA). Workers specifically in tech roles had a median salary of $124,653 — an income 147% higher than the state median.
"In our region, it is the tech sector that really drives the economy and our prosperity. For the future of the state, we need to keep growing the sector and training our kids to staff those jobs,” said Ed Lazowska, an Allen School professor and vocal advocate for the program.
Demand for tech employees is so competitive that Microsoft and Amazon this year have announced significant pay raises in bids to attract and keep workers. Then there are the hundreds of smaller Northwest tech companies or businesses that aren't strictly tech, but are hungry for employees with those skills.
In a survey of 2020-'21 Allen School graduates, at least 59 went to Amazon, 52 to Microsoft, and 23 to Facebook, among other companies. About 90% remained in state for jobs.
Given those numbers, it's no surprise that Microsoft and Amazon are among those lobbying the state to do more for the Allen School.
“We believe that investing in higher education is fundamental to strengthening the state economy and preparing Washington students for Washington jobs," said Irene Plenefisch, Microsoft's government affairs director, by email. As a result, the company has supported the Allen School as well as other state initiatives to increase access to higher education in tech education.
"We appreciate lawmakers’ efforts to make education more accessible, and hope that the Legislature continues to invest more from the state’s existing workforce education investment account into the Allen School to help meet this need,” said Guy Palumbo, Amazon's director of public policy for Washington, by email.
There are other paths to technology careers. Last year Washington lawmakers passed a rule allowing all of the state's community colleges to offer computer science bachelor’s degrees. Other public and private universities including Washington State University and Seattle University offer computer science degrees.
Ada Developers Academy, Apprenti and Reskill Americans provide free tech training to underrepresented populations and there are more than a dozen coding bootcamps such as CodingDojo, CodeFellows and others.
The Allen School is also not the only tech degree option at the UW. Other programs include the Information School, Human Centered Design & Engineering, Electrical & Computer Engineering, and Industrial & Systems Engineering. The UW's Bothell and Tacoma campuses also award computer science degrees.
The UW's Allen School is, however, top dog in Washington state in terms of the number of computer science grads. A degree from the school is great preparation for high-level jobs in cloud computing and other more technical, back-end engineering roles, Lazowska said.
In Seattle, the greatest tech role demand is for cloud operations specialists, according to the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA).
"We have a weak workforce development engine in this region," said Michael Schutzler, CEO of the WTIA. "That makes the UW [Allen School] the most important not just because their students are great, but they’re the largest in volume by far.”
But the UW is being squeezed by increasing budgetary demands and limited options for funding.
UW's funding struggles
With roughly 42,000 undergraduates, the UW is the state's largest university. The annual operating budget for its academic programs is about $1.2 billion. Over time, the state has whittled away its share of support for the public institution, leaving it more reliant on other sources of money.
Twenty years ago, state funds paid for 70% of the UW's academic costs, while tuition covered 30%. Today that's nearly flipped, with the state funding 37% of the budget, and 63% coming from tuition (in-state undergrad tuition and fees are currently $12,076 per year). The Legislature limits the university's ability to raise tuition, and budgetary pressures are growing. The Seattle area's soaring housing costs, for example, mean that UW salaries must rise as well.
“We struggle to generate enough revenue and garner enough state appropriations,” said Sarah Norris Hall, UW vice provost for planning and budgeting.
The bottom line is that computer science and engineering aren't alone in their unfunded needs.
“We have broad constituents and limited spots across hundreds of programs,” Norris Hall said. "We have unmet demand in many disciplines.”
Both the Allen School and the College of Engineering's budgets have increased over the past decade. With current funding of $28 million to $30 million (depending on which sources of funding are included), the Allen School accounts for about 27% of the college's overall budget.
At the same time, more than half of the demand for College of Engineering majors was for the Allen School. That leads some to argue for shifting more resources to the computer science program.
"The UW has a difficulty of prioritizing the Allen School over the College of Engineering, or the College of Engineering over the other colleges,” Schutzler said.
Others see another potential source of additional support: the tech sector itself.
“Allen School is at the top, elite structure of the pyramid, and we need to support that. But we need to do it in partnership with the private tech community,” said Sen. Reuven Carlyle, a state lawmaker from Seattle. He said Washington's more favorable corporate tax structure could incentivize companies to donate to institutions that rely on state funding.
"There is a recognition on some level that the overall tax burden in our state for corporations is relatively modest compared to other states,” said Carlyle, who is retiring from the Senate in January and served as chair of the Senate Environment, Energy and Technology Committee.
Local tech titans — which end up hiring many UW computer science grads — are ponying up.
Microsoft donated $20 million to the construction of a new UW computer science building that opened in 2019, Amazon and Google each donated $10 million, and Zillow gave $5 million. Microsoft also contributed $10 million in 2017 to help create the Allen School. More recent UW gifts include Amazon's $1.9 million investment in a robotics-focused Science Hub, and Microsoft's $2.5 million investment to launch a center for accessible technology.
Carlyle agreed that local companies have made significant donations. But he left the door open to more.
“I'm not offloading the obligation to fund higher education," he said. "But I do think there is a nuance here where we can ask some of the most successful companies on the planet to contribute to the public good."
Funding future computer scientists
As the Allen School pushes for higher enrollment, the program is also working to recruit a more diverse student body, which is a key factor to building a more diverse tech workforce in the long run.
The Allen School is nearly on par with the rest of the UW's Seattle campus in its enrollment percentages of Black and African American students as well as students who are first in their families to attend college. It exceeds the university for its admission of lower-income, Pell Grant-eligible students and Washington residents.
To better support these students, the Allen School created the Startup Program, which Baker and Huynh joined. The Startup Program provided preparatory coursework before the official start of the school year and created a freshman cohort that enrolled in classes together.
The Allen School's focus on diversity was a draw for Huynh.
“I really liked their mission of being inclusive and being diverse," she said, "and increasing women in the workforce and people of color.”
As they're finishing their freshman years, Baker are Huynh are each exploring where they'll take their studies and careers.
Baker said she's "glad and grateful" for getting into the Allen School. She loves the critical thinking and problem solving required by her STEM courses, and is continuing to paint in her free time, recently showing her work at a gallery. Baker wonders if she might use her tech skills to benefit a nonprofit, perhaps one serving underrepresented communities.
She's sorry for the tension between university programs that all need funding.
"Part of being in the UW, there is always this image of prioritizing STEM majors over humanities," Baker said. "I think we can strengthen the community by integrating both together.”
Rep. Hansen, who now serves on the House College and Workforce Development Committee, remains committed to increasing funding and enrollment in order to serve more students like Baker and Huynh. It's time, he said, for another plan to grow the school.
“Student demand has continued to increase, employer demand continues to increase, and it's time to do that again,” Hansen said. “I will absolutely keep fighting for it.”
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the amount that Microsoft gave towards construction of a UW computer science building, to add a quote from Amazon regarding its support of the Allen School, and to note that the UW's Tacoma and Bothell campuses also offer computer science degrees.