Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

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.


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.


Over the past three decades, the total cost of a degree (state investment + tuition) at public 4-year colleges and universities has either declined or remained flat — but the price paid by students has increased dramatically. In 1988, University of Washington students paid 18 percent and the state paid 82 percent of the total cost of a degree. In 2019, students are paying 64 percent and the state just 36 percent.

At the state’s community and technical colleges, the total cost of a degree has risen by 15 percent over that same period — but here too, the student share has more than doubled, from 20 percent of the total cost in 1988 to 45 percent in 2019.


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 annual 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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