Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Washington lags other states in access to higher education

losing-by-degrees-wapowaAccess to higher education is a key contributor to family economic security and upward mobility. But despite the acknowledged importance of higher education to state residents and businesses, Washington lags other states in promoting college access.

Since 1980, median family incomes have risen steadily for adults with four-year or graduate degrees, but have stagnated or declined for those with lower levels of education. Children from lower income families who do earn a college degree are particularly likely to make higher incomes as adults – but they have far less access to higher education. Nationally, one-third of children from families in the bottom fifth of income enroll in college, and only one in ten graduates with a four-year degree. In contrast, 79% of children from families in the top quintile of income enter college and over half graduate.

U.S. Enrollment and Graduation Rates from 4-Year College
by parent income

Source: Brookings tabulations from Panel Study of Income Dynamics, cited by Urban Institute, “Promoting Economic Mobility,” 2009

Source: Brookings tabulations from Panel Study of Income Dynamics, cited by Urban Institute, “Promoting Economic Mobility,” 2009

The state’s community and technical colleges also contribute to economic stability for families and the state. They offer a less expensive and more accessible route to higher education for young adults. And in a rapidly changing economy, they provide workers with the opportunity to retrain and upgrade skills throughout their careers. The higher the level of education, the lower the unemployment rates among Washington workers – during bad economic times as well as good.

Washington State Unemployment by Education Level

Source: Economic Policy Institute analysis of Current Population Survey data

Source: Economic Policy Institute analysis of Current Population Survey data

Washington Learns, established in 2005 to identify the reforms needed to bring the state’s entire education system to world class standards, identified a set of ten “Global Challenge States” (GCS) with economies similar to Washington’s. These states serve as benchmarks for measuring the progress of our educational policies.

Comparison of Higher Education Funding Across Global Challenge States

Source: Washington Learns: Global Challenge States

Source: Washington Learns: Global Challenge States

Washington rates poorly on multiple measures. In state and local public funding per student at research universities, Washington ranked eighth out of ten in 2003-2004. Washington also lags in providing access to four-year colleges and graduate degrees.

While we award more Associate degrees per 1,000 state residents aged 20-34 than other global challenge states, in the 2003-04 academic year we ranked 7th out of the ten GCS in awarding bachelor degrees, and 37th among all the states. In the awarding of graduate and professional degrees, we were last among the GCS and 39th among all states.

In 2007, Washington’s legislature passed Senate Bill 5806 (SB 5806), committing the state to bringing per student funding for all higher education institutions up to the 60th percentile of peer schools in Global Challenge States within ten years.  To reach its goal, Washington would need to increase funding by over $4,000 per student from the 2007-09 level.

AA, BA and Graduate Degrees Awarded in Global Challenge States
per 1,000 population aged 20-34, 2003-04

Source: Washington Learns, Global Challenge States

Source: Washington Learns, Global Challenge States

Unfortunately, that commitment has not been fulfilled. With the economy in severe recession and the majority of policy makers committed to avoiding revenue increases, the 2009-11 state budget includes steep cuts to higher education along with most public services. The Higher Education Coordination Board estimates that without offsets, the state budget cuts would result in 7,083 fewer slots per year for full-time students at public institutions of higher education in the state.

Federal stimulus funds and hefty tuition hikes will make up for about half the cuts. Still, the state’s public research universities will be able to enroll about 2,000 fewer students in 2009-10 than in 2008-09, and the comprehensive universities will have space for 2,362 fewer – even while population continues to expand.

Washington is moving further away from the goal of building a world class education system.

Note: This is the first in a five-part series based on EOI’s latest report: Losing By Degrees.

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