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The Impact: Higher Education Enrollment Declines; High School Dual Credit Program Options

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

Overall college enrollment is down significantly in Washington from pre-pandemic levels which could mean the state is not on track to meet its future workforce goals.

According to the Washington Student Achievement Council, undergraduate student enrollment declined 10% at public 4-year institutions between fall 2019 and fall 2022 and 25% at community and technical colleges during the same period of time. The declines come despite additional investments from the state and policy changes at the institutional level meant to increase accessibility to higher education and specialized training.  

WSAC Director of Policy & Planning Heather Hudson says it’s unclear exactly what’s behind the drop, but adds that institutions are developing strategies to boost enrollment.

“It’s important to recognize that while we saw the decline during the pandemic, Washington state did have a K-12 direct post-secondary enrollment rate at 60% for the past ten years. So we saw that rate go down during the pandemic, but Washington State also had some challenges pre-pandemic. And it is also important to recognize that Washington state’s goal of having 70% of residents earn some form of post-secondary credential is inclusive of things beyond just a two year and four year degree. So given that, I don’t know if we can answer the why right now,” said Hudson.

She noted that enrollment has remained more stable among students who received some form of financial aid from the state.

“So we think there is something to be said for the fact that Washington state has arguably some of the most generous and robust state financial aid in the country,” said Hudson. “With the Washington College grant, you know, a family of four that earns up to $73,000, they can get full tuition and fees covered at our two-year or four-year public institutions. And if students are receiving that state financial aid and have managed to stay enrolled during the pandemic, we think that’s an important strategy we’ve got to stick with.”

“We know there is still value in a post-secondary credential. More and more jobs today and jobs in the future will require some form of a post-secondary degree, which is why Washington State has adopted that 70% goal,” said Hudson.

In Washington, students can get a feel for college level courses, advanced technical training,  and even campus life before they ever leave high school. A variety of dual credit programs allow high school teens to get a jump on post-secondary education while simultaneously working towards their high school diplomas.

“That boosts their confidence and the sense of self in themselves and their families that they are college material,” said Julie Garver, Director of Policy and Academic Affairs for the Council of Presidents which represents Washington’s public four-year baccalaureate institutions.

Some of the dual credit courses are taught on location in the high school, some are offered online, and for others students physically attend classes at the college or university.

“With careful planning they could, at our two-year colleges, end up with a two-year degree and a high school diploma at the same time. That could lead them to transferring to a four-year institution, or they could be looking at a high demand credential that gets them a job afterwards,” said Jamie Traugott, Director of Dual Credit & Strategic Enrollment Initiatives for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.