Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

Your Legislator May Not Understand How Much College Costs

Many paid 85 percent less for college than Millennials -- and state aid falls far short

Each of the thousands of students heading to college in Seattle, Pullman, Bellingham, Ellensburg, Cheney, Olympia and other Washington cities this fall will have a different experience in school — but there is one thing they’ll all face together: extremely high tuition.

It hasn’t always been this way though, and many of today’s state legislators — especially those who graduated from Washington’s colleges and universities before the year 2000 — should know it. They had much lower tuition bills than today’s students because the state leaders in office at the time passed budgets that invested significantly more in higher education than the state does today.

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Graduates of Washington’s higher education system are well-represented in the state legislature, and Washington residents can rightly be proud of that fact. Of the 149 people now serving in the legislature, more than one-third (56) attended one of Washington’s public colleges and/or universities.

House Senate Total
Baby Boomers 11 9 20
Generation X 18 10 28
Millennials 6 2 8
Total 35 21 56

But the price tag for college over the past two decades, which is directly affected by the budgets state legislators enact, is another story. Here’s how tuition changed, generation by generation, for today’s legislators and their classmates. (Note: all figures cited below utilize 2019 inflation-adjusted dollars with 1965 tuition levels as a baseline.)

Baby Boomers

The Baby Boomers went to school from 1965 to 1980 — a time of relatively low (or even declining) tuition. At its most expensive (1972), one year’s tuition for community college was equivalent to just four weeks of full-time minimum wage work. Putting together tuition for one of the state’s 4-year schools took longer, but was certainly in the realm of possibility, at seven to nine weeks of minimum wage work.

Attended Research University
(UW or WSU)
Attended Comprehensive University or College
Attended Community/Technical College
Sen. Curtis King (R-14)
Rep. Jake Fey (D-27)
Rep. Laurie Dolan (D-22)
Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D-11)
Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43)
Sen. Claire Wilson (D-30)
Rep. Cindy Ryu (D-32)
Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-15)
Rep. Mike Sells (D-38)
Rep. Larry Springer (D-45)
Sen. Jeannie Darnielle (D-27)
Sen. Dean Takko (D-19)
Rep. Joe Schmick (R-9)
Sen. Jeannie Darnielle (D-27)
Sen. Randi Becker (R-2)
Rep. Joel Kretz (R-7)
Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-9)
Rep. Brian Blake (D-19)
Rep. John Lovick (D-44)
Generation X

Those born into Generation X had a very different experience from the Baby Boomers. When state revenue diminished, legislators chose to let tuition increase rather than enact revenue reforms to keep college affordable. As a result, while Gen Xers were in college (from 1980 to 2000), the cost of a degree from one of the state’s research universities (the University of Washington or Washington State University) more than doubled. Likewise, at state comprehensive schools (like Western, Central, or Eastern Washington University, or Evergreen State College), tuition became 2.35 times more expensive. Community and technical college tuition increased 61 percent.

Attended Research University
(UW or WSU)
Attended Comprehensive University or College
Attended Community/Technical College
Rep. Bob McCaslin (R-4)
Sen. Jeff Holly (R-6)
Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28)
Rep. Pat Sullivan (D-47)
Rep. J.T. Wilcox (R-2)
Rep. Tina Orwall (D-33)
Sen. John Braun (R-20)
Rep. My-Linh Thai (D-41)
Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44)
Rep. Michelle Caldier (R-26)
Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33)
Rep. Brian Blake (D-19)
Sen. Shelly Short (R-7)
Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-37)
Rep. Alex Ybarra (R-17)
Rep. Matt Boehnke (R-8)
Rep. Mari Leavitt (D-28)
Rep. Mike Volz (R-6)
Rep. Monica Jurado Stonier (D-49)
Sen. Jesse Soloman (D-32)
Sen. Brad Hawkins (D-12)
Sen. Shelly Short (R-7)
Sen. Steve Hobbs (D-44)
Rep. Mike Chapman (D-24)
Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-24)
Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33)
Rep. Carolyn Eslick (R-39)

As bad as the tuition hikes were for Generation X, far worse was to come for Millennials. Legislators kept cutting funding, and as a consequence, tuition kept climbing. By 2016, tuition at state research universities was an astounding 5.5 times more expensive; at comprehensive schools, tuition climbed 4.9 to 5.5 times (depending on the institution); and at community and technical colleges, tuition peaked at 2.93 times more than 1965 levels.

Attended Research University
(UW or WSU)
Attended Comprehensive University or College
Attended Community/Technical College
Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D-24)
Rep. Steve Berquist (D-11)
Rep. Chris Corry (R-14)
Rep. Christine Reeves (D-30)
Rep. Morgan Irwin (R-31)
Rep. Jared Mead (D-44)
Sen. Liz Lovelett (D-40) Rep. Jared Mead (D-44)
Fixing the broken status quo

Over the past several years, legislators have restored some state higher education funding, and as a result, tuition costs have declined — but only in comparison to the sky-high costs of the early-to-mid 2010’s. Tuition is still far higher for Millennials than for any preceding generation.

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And even though legislators recently expanded funding for the Washington College Grant (formerly called the State Need Grant), the income thresholds for that aid will still put much of it out of reach for working families. The expansion takes effect in 2020 — but here’s what the new program would mean for a family of four in 2019, with one student attending the University of Washington and both adults working full-time.

If both adults earn minimum wage ($12/hour), the student would receive 100 percent of the state grant, leaving about $700 remaining in tuition and fees. But that aid falls off quickly: at a yearly family income of $66,650 ($16/hour per adult), the same student would receive just 24.5 percent of the maximum possible grant, leaving more than $8,800 still to be paid (or more likely, borrowed) — more than double the cost many legislators, and their classmates in preceding generations, paid.

Washington College Grant 2020 expansion applied to 2019 family incomes
(Family of 4 with two full-time working adults, one student attending college)

Hourly wage per working adult (total yearly income)

Up to

Up to

Up to

Up to

Up to

Up to


Maximum percent of Washington College Grant awarded:








Remaining tuition/fees:
University of Washington








Washington State University








Central Washington University








Eastern Washington University








The Evergreen State College








Western Washington University








Community/Technical Colleges








As we’ve previously reported, this is why the “high-tuition/high-aid” model – in which colleges charge higher tuition overall, but offer larger financial assistance packages to low-income students – is actually a step backward in terms of access and affordability.

And for young people who go to college despite the price tag, the student debt that often accompanies high tuition has a profound impact on their lives. An increasing number of today’s graduates are postponing homeownership, marriage and childbirth. High tuition effectively erases those options from life’s menu — and it doesn’t exactly set Washington up for a vibrant economic future.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The underlying problem with funding for higher education is Washington’s too-narrow tax base, which not only continues to shrink relative to the whole economy, but also relies too heavily on contributions from low- and middle-income state residents and taxing the wealthy too lightly.

It’s a broken status quo — but legislators have the power to fix it. When they reconvene next January, they should enact revenue reforms that drive tuition costs down to year 2000 levels. Since there’s no definitive name for the next 20-year cohort yet, by doing so, we could call them the Education Generation here in Washington. Doesn’t that have a nice ring to it?

  • Leave a Reply
    • Andrea Faste

      We just have to get a state income tax in place so that those at the low end of income don’t pay way more in taxes than those at the top.
      Hoping that the test of the Seattle head tax by State Supreme Court paves the way.

      Sep 8 2019 at 12:11 PM

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