(TNS) — Tuition is dropping at Washington state's universities, and opportunities to enter lucrative fields are expanding. That potent duo should translate into economic gains for Washington state.

Washington State Opportunity Scholarship was launched in 2011 to address the skills mismatch between the state's current workforce and job openings in the booming fields of technology, health care and engineering.

Employers often complained that they couldn't find enough qualified in-state workers to fill positions. Young people and their families complained that they couldn't afford the higher education needed to nab jobs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

So the state Legislature launched WSOS, which matches dollars raised in the private sector to expand access to college to young people from families with modest means. The students must major in a STEM-related field and maintain a 2.75 grade-point average. Out-of-state students are not eligible.

Qualified students can receive up to $22,500 over five years.

Major private contributors include the Rubens Family Foundation, the Ballmer Family Foundation, Microsoft and Boeing.

Thus far, the state has gotten a solid return on its investment.

Since the program began, 5,400 students have gotten scholarships and nearly 1,500 have graduated. About 75 percent of graduates have jobs or are pursuing graduate degrees in their fields. (Disclosure: the son of this editorial's author is a scholarship recipient).

Karla La Torre Alvarez, whose family moved to the United States from Peru, is an example of student who is being given an opportunity she might not have otherwise had. She is a Spokane Falls Community College student who is transferring to Gonzaga University to major in civil engineering. She says that without the scholarship Gonzaga might have been out of reach.

WSOS just announced that 1,450 students will be new recipients for the 2016-17 school year. An impressive 69 percent of them will the first in their families to attend college, and 64 percent of them are students of color. The median annual income of families of recipients is $39,000.

Sixty high school seniors from the Spokane region were awarded scholarships, and every county has at least one recipient.

The genius of WSOS is that it not only targets careers in need of more workers, it targets people who might not have been able to afford college. It also provides professional development support and other assistance to keep students on track.

A 2013 Boston Consulting Group study found that companies could add as many as 25,000 jobs, if they had the qualified graduates to fill them. And 80 percent of those jobs were in STEM-related fields.

Thanks to public-private partnership that sustains this smart workforce development program help is on the way.

©2016 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.