College getting out of reach

This state’s graduating high school class of 2012 had the highest combined score on their SAT tests of any state in the country.

On the surface this should be encouraging news. High performance on this key college admissions test means graduating students in this state are more prepared for college than any other state’s high school graduation class.

But wait. The number of Washington’s high school grads heading straight to college is slipping over time. According to a recent report in The Seattle Times, 58 percent of the state’s high school graduates in 1992 went straight to college. That ranked 11th in the nation, well above the national average of 54 percent.

Flash forward 20 years and the number of college-bound high school grads has dropped to 51 percent. At the same time, the national average is up to 63 percent, This state now ranks 46th in the nation on direct high school-to-college mobility.

Just as disturbing, community college enrollment last year fell 6 percent in this state, according to the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

While some of the enrollment decline represents students who are leaving school to enter the job market, there’s a bigger factor at play – soaring tuition rates.

It would be naive to think the double-digit tuition hikes experienced at two- and four-year institutions of higher learning in recent years are not taking a toll on enrollment.

Put another way, the $4,000 a year it now costs on average to attend community college is about what it cost to go to the University of Washington 10 years ago.

The trend toward higher and higher tuition comes at more than a monetary cost. Soaring tuition equals lost opportunity for thousands of students who simply can’t afford to go to community college, let alone a four-year school.

Higher education funding in the state budget has to be a renewed priority. A steady parade of tuition increases to make up for state budget cuts has reached a tipping point. Educators and lawmakers simply must do a better job keeping higher education affordable to the bright young students graduating from high school.