Education pays – but at what cost? WA tuition increases threaten long-term economic prosperity

As the saying goes, “education pays.”

But with another round of tuition increases at Washington’s public universities this fall, the rising cost of college – and how to pay for it – is becoming a significant barrier to potential students.

This coming academic year, double-digit percentage increases in tuition are planned at the University of Washington, Washington State University, Central Washington University, Eastern Washington University, Western Washington University and the Evergreen State College.

These increases represent a 180% increase in tuition and fees at the UW since 2000, 166% at WSU, about 140% (on average) for comprehensive institutions, and is likely to be upward of 100% for community and technical colleges (2011-12 tuition and fees at those institutions will be decided later this month).

These increases will continue the ‘brain drain’, pushing highly qualified students to out-of-state universities, and deterring otherwise-qualified students from enrolling due to sticker shock. But these short-term effects will have long-term consequences on Washington’s future economic productivity.

  1. Despite diminishing investments in higher education, demand for trained and educated graduates will only increase. Washington’s Higher Education Coordinating Board predicts 67% of Washington jobs will require a college degree by 2018.
  2. Some students will choose to apply to trade school or enroll in one of Washington’s community colleges instead of a university. But state budget cuts have limited enrollment at these institutions and phased out programs that lead to jobs – making it difficult for even the most capable high school graduates to find training or gainful employment post-graduation.
  3. Fewer students may choose college because of high “sticker” prices, despite the clear economic incentive: college graduates at every level earn about 66% more than the typical high school graduate over a lifetime.

Unmanageable tuition increases, paired with continuing cuts to higher education – set for half a billion dollars this biennium – will have effects far beyond this recession. Such drastic cuts in state support represents a systemic shift in public priorities, limiting the achievement of our homegrown leaders and holding back Washington’s future economic prosperity.

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