A state study shows that the number of Washington residents who applied to the state’s public universities is down by more than 9 percent from last year.
The drop is most pronounced among older students and transfers from community colleges and other schools, prompting some to speculate that an improving economy may be partly behind the trend. However, the decline in applications was across-the-board among all Washington residents, while out-of-state applications from high-school-age students actually increased 8 percent.
University officials said they don’t have enough information to say why applications are down, but suggested the steadily rising cost of higher education may be partly to blame.
“The cost of a public, baccalaureate education has been going up, and the economy seems to be doing well,” said Michelle Whittingham, associate vice president for enrollment services at Eastern Washington University. “Are students looking at the cost benefit … in terms of a quick decision and not the long-term investment?”
Vicki McCracken, vice president of enrollment services at Washington State University, said that while college has gotten more expensive, the gap between rich and poor has widened. More affluent families can afford to send their children to out-of-state schools, but the increasing cost of Washington colleges has been approaching a breaking point for poor and middle-class families.
“I wonder if this year is it, or if it’s something else,” she said.
After enrollment officials statewide saw reduced applications in the spring, the state Office of Financial Management undertook a study of all applications statewide – to see whether the true number of people applying had gone down, or whether they’d just applied to fewer schools each. The latter possibility was considered because application fees at Washington universities went up from about $38 to $50.
The report compiled numbers from five of Washington’s six public four-year schools; Central Washington was omitted because of difficulties in making valid comparisons.
The report did find that there were fewer applications per student this year. However, the sheer number of people who applied had dropped significantly – by 5.6 percent. The drop was more pronounced among Washington residents, with 2,846 fewer applicants – 9.3 percent less than fall 2005.
Meanwhile, the number of high school seniors in the state was slightly larger in the fall than in the previous year, officials said.
The number of Washington students looking to transfer from community colleges or other universities was down 18 percent. And students older than 30 had the largest drop of all, with about a third fewer.
Those final two statistics suggest that an improved economy may be one factor behind the application drop, officials say. Community college enrollments tend to rise and fall in contrast to the economy – rising during tough job markets, and vice-versa – and older students make up a large part of that demographic.
Another possible factor could be the highly publicized change in transfer policies at the University of Washington last year, which has created a mistaken impression statewide that community college students can’t transfer to state universities, said Brian Spraggins, director of recruitment and admissions at Spokane Community College.
“I think that’s had a bigger impact than people realize,” he said. “The University of Washington tends to cast a large shadow. … There’s a lot of fear that, ‘If I go to a community college I won’t be able to get into a four-year college’ – and that’s just not true.”
Projecting fall enrollments is not an exact science, since not every student a university accepts ends up enrolling.
Whittingham said Eastern’s applications are down about 15 percent overall, and the school is projecting that it will enroll 1,348 freshmen in the fall, the lowest in four years, which would be down from a record low of 1,631 last year. Given that EWU had its largest graduating class last year, overall enrollment is expected to drop by about 2.5 percent, she said.
McCracken declined to project specific enrollment figures but said they would likely be down by more than the dip in applications of 2.5 percent.
The trend is most apparent at public schools. Gonzaga and Whitworth both saw increases in applications this year, but GU noticed that its Washington applications were down, as well.
University officials say they’ll continue trying to figure out what’s happening, and they’ll have a clearer picture once they reach the 10th day of classes in the fall – the standard benchmark for measuring enrollments.
“I have some hypotheses, and when we enroll our class and see how it differs from previous years, we’ll have a little better idea,” McCracken said.
Whittingham said EWU officials are still hopeful that they could wind up with a larger class then projected.
“Our hope certainly is that this is a temporary decline,” she said.