Public Higher Education Tuition in Washington

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

In 1980, a student could earn enough working just one summer (seven weeks) at minimum wage to cover tuition at any of the state’s 4-year colleges or universities — and just three weeks to pay for community or technical college — because state funding for higher education kept costs affordable.

Today, it would take six months of full-time work at minimum wage to pay for the University of Washington or Washington State University; more than four months to attend The Evergreen State College, or Eastern, Central or Western Washington University, and more than two months to attend a community or technical college.

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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 cost paid by students has increased dramatically. In 1990, University of Washington students paid 16.5 percent and the state paid 83.5 percent of the total cost of a degree. In 2019, students are paying 59 percent and the state just 41 percent.

At the state’s 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 of state budget cuts followed by tuition increases has repeated itself, year after year. Today — even after Washington legislators restored a portion 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.

Compared to 1979, as a percentage of the state’s median wage, tuition costs are:

  • 3.8 times higher for a state comprehensive college (Western, Central, or Eastern Washington University, or The Evergreen State College);
  • 4 times higher for community and technical colleges; and
  • 5 times higher for research universities (University of Washington and Washington State University).
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