Declining statewide institutional enrollment highlights barriers to higher education

An overall drop in student enrollment rates across public institutions post-pandemic raises questions about affordability and the cost of attendance, despite the assistance of financial aid.

The wake of the pandemic brought drops in student enrollment at public institutions throughout Washington state, during a time when earning a college degree could influence whether someone earns a livable wage. 

At UW Tacoma, enrollment data shows that during Autumn 2020, there were 5,369 total students, dropping to 5,027 in 2021, then 4,801 students in 2022, according to quick statistic reports published by the Office of the Registrar. A campus fact sheet for the 2023-2024 academic year announced a total student headcount of 4,790, published by Chancellor Sheila Edwards Lange. 

“Enrollment isn’t always just a cost-decision, there’s so much about personal enrichment and growth and opportunities that aren’t just monetary in nature,” Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Services Shannon Carr said. 

UWT isn’t the only institution in Washington state that is facing dwindling numbers. 

The state is seeing an overall enrollment decline of about 70,000 students in technical colleges and public baccalaureate institutions since pre-pandemic times, with 10,000 less students at universities across the state’s four-year public institutions, according to data from the Washington Roundtable. Despite low enrollment, Washington State University (WSU) like other universities in the U.S. has announced an increase in tuition by 3% for the 2024-2025 academic year, approving new tuition rates for professional education programs, according to WSU’s website.  

This decline comes at a time when, between the years of 2024 to 2029, at least 70% of Washington State’s workforce job openings are predicted to require at least some education beyond high school, according to a 2021-2022 joint agency report published by the Washington Student Achievement Council

Among individual barriers to higher education like low income and debt is the estimated cost of tuition and student fees at colleges and universities statewide. 

The sticker price for institutional attendance does not factor in individual student expenses like food on campus, housing or transportation. Student loans can provide some immediate but temporary relief for these expenses, though many families can’t afford to send their children into higher education. 

The Board of Regents for the University of Washington sets the tuition rates at their board meeting in June with the information provided by UW’s finance and administration departments. 

For a non-resident undergraduate student at UWT taking 10 to 18 credits, the estimated cost of attendance per quarter is $14,057, while the amount for a resident student in the state is $4,273, according to the Office of the Registrar. The cost also varies for graduate students of different tiers. 

“We’ve tried to ensure that our aid and what we’re able to offer students correlates to those rates of tuition increase, and so we can keep the overall cost for students as balanced as possible,” Carr said. 

The system for determining quarterly tuition rates at UWT is based on a student’s classification as an undergraduate or graduate. Students are awarded aid only if they are registered for and complete 12 credits per quarter. 

With a 15-hour per week commitment for each course, UWT students often must choose between taking enough credits to receive financial aid or taking less to accommodate their work schedules. 

Sometimes students need to pay tuition upfront or take out short-term loans to attend, either with or without their parents’ help, depending on their situation.  

“That’s hours in class and out of class that you have to dedicate to school which you can’t spend working to make money, so you have to be able to forgo that income to be able to attend, so for me I count that into my costs for going,” said UWT student Katie Scott. 

Scott, a previously single parent who received no help managing two children and her living situation, took out student loans to attend university. It has taken her 12 years to finish a 4-year degree, as there were times when she couldn’t take classes.  

“I think it’s more than just making good financial decisions,” Scott said. “If people are having to rely on subsidies in any way, it’s so complicated to just get in the door to a school, let alone stay there. Sometimes not going to school is the sound financial decision.”  

Since inflation has caused housing rent and general living expenses to rise, missing income from a job can outweigh a students’ choice to continue a college education. 

“Especially our student population, there is a strong commitment to family, and a lot of our students are helping to support their families, and so that call to work has become increasingly important,” Carr said. 

Incrementally declining birth rates since the late 1960s are also expected to lead to a decrease in future college and university enrollment rates throughout the U.S. Birthrates are the lowest in families who can afford to send children to college without loans, according to WCET Frontiers

Despite an unknown economic future for new career professionals ahead, attending institutions can open doors to new skills or job opportunities for students with the right connections. 

Science Building on the University of Washington Tacoma campus. Photo by Cameron Berrens.

Featured Image, Interior of the Office of the Registrar at UWT. Photo by Cameron Berrens.