There are two explanations for last year’s 6 percent drop in community college enrollment.
One is worth a party. According to the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, more Washingtonians are finding jobs and drifting away from school.
The other is disturbing. Marty Brown, executive director of the board, says that rising costs are likely scaring off would-be students.
That’s pretty much self-evident, given that tuition has risen by 12 percent each of the last two years. It now costs $4,000 a year to attend a community college – about what it cost to attend the University of Washington 10 years ago.
The Legislature has been busily dismantling Washington’s public colleges and universities since the Great Recession hit. As in past recessions, lawmakers have treated the higher education system as a piggy bank – something to break and raid to spare other state services. They’ve reduced appropriations to colleges by an estimated $1.4 billion since 2009.
Yes, higher education must suffer its share of cutbacks when money gets scarce. But few if any states have cannibalized their colleges the way Washington has; the Legislature has cut direct funding to its universities by as much as half, to its community colleges by roughly a quarter.
To offset the cuts, the schools have been permitted to raise their tuitions dramatically. In theory, students of modest means were supposed to be held harmless by an equally dramatic increase in state need grants.
In reality, while funding for need grants has gone up, the increase hasn’t come close to covering the actual need. These means-tested grants have been denied to roughly 30,000 eligible Washingtonians. Some of those 30,000 are undoubtedly among the 6 percent who aren’t in class anymore.
Higher education is a poor place to economize in a downturn.
Many Washington employers – especially in tech-intensive industries – would be happy to expand their payrolls if only they could find qualified workers. Many Washingtonians would be happy to make and spend more money if only they could qualify for one of those unfilled jobs.
Two-year colleges are particularly quick at connecting job-hungry workers to high-paying positions in industries that need them.
These schools retrain people who’ve been thrown out of work. They help military veterans shift to civilian occupations. They help people of low income and few skills to trade welfare for paychecks.
They adapt nimbly to employers’ needs by creating new certificate and degree programs. Bates Technical College, for example, launched a machinist-training program just last year in response to the emerging shortage of machinists.
In less than three months, lawmakers will take another look at their spending priorities. If surpluses start appearing again, lawmakers should start restoring money to the most effective economic stimulus there is – higher education.