Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

As More People Need Degrees, Rural Washingtonians Are Left Behind

Community colleges are vital institutions, especially in the age of automation

Community colleges provide students with a pathway to higher education that is close to home and more affordable. They are especially attractive to students experiencing various barriers to economic opportunity. Community colleges serve diverse populations, spanning from recent high school graduates earning college credit to transfer to four-year institutions to older students with caretaking responsibilities looking for job retraining opportunities.

Students who earn degrees or certificates from community colleges benefit from higher earnings and greater opportunity. In Washington, median earnings for someone over the age of 25 with only a high school diploma was $41,933 in 2018. For those with an associate’s degree, however, it was $50,541.

Community colleges are also vital institutions of economic development. As our industries change to become increasingly automated, community colleges train and re-train people for jobs that are increasingly requiring higher levels of knowledge in technology, engineering, and science.

Despite this, community college enrollment has been declining since 2010 nationwide. This is partly because community colleges are under-resourced. Washington State’s investment in community colleges has been declining for several decades. At our state’s community and technical colleges, the total cost of a degree has risen 15 percent between 1988 and 2019 – but the student share has more than doubled from 20 percent in 1988 to 45 percent in 2019.

Last fall, Wenatchee Valley Community College announced it was laying off 21 non-faculty staff members due to a $1 million budget shortfall, after experiencing a 30 percent enrollment decline. Despite this, the college continues to expand options for students. Students now may pursue a pharmacy technician degree and will soon be able to enroll in a bachelor’s of applied science teaching degree program.

Declining enrollments also result partially from the strong economy. During times of high employment, community college enrollment tends to be lower. But even in boom times, people without a post-secondary credential are likely to be stuck in lower-wage jobs and are much more vulnerable to economic changes.


Residents of rural communities are at the intersection of three major access barriers to college – geographic, racial/ethnic, and income. Community colleges are essential centers of educational excellence, providing the workforce training necessary for a changing economy. This is why the lack of state investment in community colleges has a particularly devastating effect in rural and economically distressed counties.

A new report from EOI, Washington’s College Pathway, explores the interaction of geographic, racial/ethnic and income/wealth barriers on Washingtonian high school graduates.

While last year’s investments in higher education through the Workforce and Education Investment Act were crucial steps towards greater access and affordability, a first-dollar rural College promise program, which is open to all regardless of income, age, and educational achievement, is the next step. First-dollar programs guarantee a grant that covers tuition and fees, allowing other forms of aid to be used to cover living costs.

This kind of program in Washington would reaffirm community college as centers of educational excellence and agents of economic activity, while addressing the specific needs of residents of rural communities.


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