Enrollment plummets at Washington’s colleges, especially among men

In 2019, Washington created one of the most generous college financial aid programs in the country. Compared with a program it replaced, the Washington College Grant allowed many more students to qualify for free or subsidized tuition. No longer would eligible students be denied aid because of caps tied to limited funds.

By all rights, the state’s colleges should have seen a rush of applicants. Instead, enrollment plummeted.

Community and technical colleges experienced a combined 24% drop between fall 2019 and fall 2021. Public four-year institutions saw a collective drop in undergraduates of nearly 7% during that time period, with some schools’ losses double or even triple that. Roughly 60,000 fewer students, in all, enrolled.

What happened, of course, was COVID-19, though education leaders are still untangling the reasons the pandemic kept students away. As colleges scramble for ways to boost their numbers, they are facing hard truths about higher education in this state — namely, lukewarm enthusiasm and a gender gap that has women outnumbering men at virtually every institution. 

There’s not a clear understanding of what’s behind Washington’s lackluster college attendance, nor the gender gap. “The challenge around men is something that the entire higher education community is trying to figure out,” said Jan Yoshiwara, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Theories abound, tapping into the state’s blue-collar roots, notions of masculinity and changing ideas about college in the internet age. That’s apart from oft-heard complaints about the spiraling college costs and student debt, and a conservative critique of campuses as bastions of snowflake liberalism.

The Washington Roundtable, a business group, is launching a study to get to the bottom of what’s going on, said its vice president, Neil Strege.