Public Higher Education Tuition in Washington

State budget cuts have pushed the cost of college out of reach

In 1965, a student could earn enough from a summer minimum-wage job to cover tuition at any of the state’s colleges or universities, because state funding for higher education kept costs affordable. Today, it would take 6 months of full-time work at minimum wage to pay for the University of Washington or Washington State University — and more than 4 months to attend The Evergreen State College, or Eastern, Central or Western Washington University. Community or technical college tuition, once equivalent to just 4 weeks of full-time minimum wage work, now costs 9.

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The reason: as state legislators have made ever-deeper cuts in public higher education funding, Washington’s colleges and universities have charged students more to cover the losses.

Since 1990, the total cost of a degree (state investment + tuition) at public 4-year colleges and universities has either declined or remained flat — but the costs borne by students have increased dramatically. In 1990, University of Washington students paid 16.5 percent and the state paid 83.5 percent. In 2019, students pay 59 percent and the state just 41 percent.

At community and technical colleges, the total cost of a degree has risen by 15 percent since 1990 — but here too, students are paying far more than before: from 19 percent of the total cost in 1990 to 41 percent in 2019.

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The pattern has repeated itself in state budgets, year after year. Today — even after Washington legislators restored some of the most recent cuts to higher education funding — the cost of college often requires loan amounts that cause the state’s young people to postpone marriage, home ownership, children, and the American Dream.

As a percentage of the state’s median wage, since 1979, tuition costs have tripled for a state comprehensive college (Western, Central, or Eastern Washington University, or The Evergreen State College), and quadrupled for research universities like the University of Washington or Washington State University.

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