Amazon Invests in Community College Bachelor’s Degree Programs

The public-private partnership will help launch computer science and STEM-related bachelor’s programs through three institutions in Washington state.
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  • Amazon is investing in a pilot program in Washington to address the state's computer scientist shortage.
  • Through this public-private partnership, Amazon will grant $1 million each to three institutions.
  • Amazon says it will hire some graduates of the pilot program.
  • Amazon joins Microsoft, Google, and IBM in investing in community colleges to train a tech workforce.

Amazon is poised to revolutionize public-private partnerships in higher education by investing in a pilot program that will launch new bachelor’s degrees at community and technical colleges in Washington.

The Washington State Board of Community and Technical Colleges, the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship, and Seattle Colleges will each receive $1 million from Amazon.

The State Board of Community and Technical Colleges will use its funds to develop curricula for computer science, according to reporting from Inside Higher Ed. The Washington State Opportunity Scholarship will use its share to support students pursuing STEM-related bachelor’s degrees. Seattle Colleges will use its funding to attract students who excel in STEM programs.

The pilot program aims to address the national shortage of computer scientists that is impacting Amazon and many other companies. Amazon also says it will hire some graduates of the pilot program, a strong endorsement of the skills training and education provided by community and technology colleges.

“It has a symbolic impact to say, ‘We believe in community colleges,’” Seattle Colleges chancellor Shouan Pan told Inside Higher Ed.

Big Tech Invests Big In Community Colleges

Last year, both Google and Microsoft revealed plans for programs that benefit higher education. These technology giants are following in the footsteps of IBM, which first launched IT-training programs through community colleges in 2017.

Community colleges are often prime targets for public-private partnerships. These schools' missions and diverse student populations provide a ready solution to the “skills gap.” The "skills gap" refers to the lack of qualified workers to fill high numbers of available jobs.

Nationwide, public-private partnerships (PPPs) have become important because funding for public higher education has not recovered from cuts made during the 2008 economic recession. The State Higher Education Executive Officers Association noted in a 2020 report that nationally, higher education appropriations were 6% below 2008 levels and 14.6% below 2001 levels.

Richard Michal is vice president and chief facilities officer at the Purdue Research Foundation. He also sits on the Board of Directors for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP).

“The typical PPPs in higher ed, or at least the ones I am most familiar with, have been for real estate, facilities, or auxiliary services,” Michal told BestColleges.

Amazon’s investment also builds on a national trend of community colleges expanding to offer bachelor’s degrees. According to a 2021 study by New America, community colleges in 24 states offer bachelor's degrees.

Michal described Amazon's pilot program as “an evolution” because it will combine traditional community college skills training with four-year degree outcomes such as problem-solving, research and analysis, and lifelong learning.

“There is much debate in higher ed about the balance between the role of higher ed in the continued development of critical-thinking skills vs. professional programs,” Michal said.

If Amazon and Washington's community colleges are able to achieve such a balance, he said, "I think this partnership will be a great thing.”

Paul Dale, SCUP Board member and president of Paradise Valley Community College in Arizona, agreed that Amazon’s involvement follows national trends.

“It’s been a long tradition of community colleges to partner with private entities," Dale told BestColleges. "Historically, that’s been primarily around career and workforce development programs. But one trend is that more community colleges are getting involved in baccalaureate-level teaching.”

Dale also noted that Arizona last year passed a law allowing community colleges to offer bachelor’s degree programs.

“Another growing trend is that of companies wanting to promote incumbent training so they can upskill employees,” Dale said. “I think a growing pipeline for community colleges is the direct recruitment of those already employed for either an associate or baccalaureate degree.”

Now Hiring: Computer Scientists

Washington didn’t allow its community colleges to offer four-year degrees until April 2021. Before Amazon's investment can reach its full potential, these community colleges need to develop curricula, hire staff, and recruit students — ideally before the fall 2022 semester.

Senate Bill 5401, Washington's new law permitting community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees, came in response to the state economy's demand for computer scientists.

The Washington Student Achievement Council estimates that more than 50,000 new computer-related jobs will be created in the state from 2018-2028.

Over 278,000 students attend Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges. Nearly half are students of color, meaning Amazon’s support has the opportunity to benefit students from underrepresented communities.

“Allowing our community colleges to offer these degrees will extend opportunities to so many of our neighbors,” State Sen. Joe Nguyen, who sponsored SB 5401, said in a statement. “With all the talented people living in our state, it’s so important that we provide options and paths forward.”