Washington’s colleges and universities were braced for a big drop in enrollment this fall, expecting college kids to opt out of remotely taught classes and defer their educations for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

The good news: Most kids showed up after all. The not-so-good news: Colleges are reporting that students from low-income families were more likely to hold back.

Students eligible for financial aid “were less likely to apply, less likely to deposit, and less likely to enroll at any institution,” said Jens Larson, associate vice president for enrollment management at Eastern Washington University, in an email. That trend is “disheartening and a new challenge,” he said.

State educators say they’ll need to work harder to convince students whose families can’t afford college that state and federal aid is there to help — they just need to apply for it.

Washington has one of the most generous financial aid programs in the country, made even more robust by a legislative change in 2019 that created an entitlement, the Washington College Grant, which covers the full tuition cost at any public college or university in Washington for a student whose family of four makes up to $50,000 a year. Some aid is also available on a sliding scale for students whose families make up to $97,000 a year. The grant can also be used at certain in-state private colleges.

The state needs to do a better job of making students aware of that program, said Brian Jeffries, policy director for the Partnership for Learning, an effort by the business group Washington Roundtable to improve college-going in this state.


“This is not a field of dreams — just because we’re building it, they’re not coming,” said Jeffries. The Partnership for Learning projects that just 41% of the Washington graduating class of 2017 is on track to earn a post-high-school credential of any kind by the time they are 26, and Washington ranked 49th among the states for the number of its graduating seniors who filled out the federal financial aid form this year.

If anything, the pandemic has underscored how a college degree can help make it easier for workers to ride out a major economic disruption, and it’s causing some schools to rethink ways to deliver college classes.

Among Seattle-area residents with a four-year college degree, 69% are now teleworking, compared with about 26% of those with a high school degree or less, according to the Household Pulse Survey, which was conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau from Aug. 19 to Aug. 31.

Enrollment trends

Nationwide, an early snapshot shows undergraduate college enrollment is running 4% below last year’s level, according to research by the National Student Clearinghouse. Public colleges are faring better, both nationally and here in Washington, where the University of Washington recorded a slight uptick in the number of students, and Washington State University enrollment dropped by just 1.4%.

Nationally, some of the hardest hit were two-year public colleges, which saw enrollment fall 9.4%. There’s no count yet on enrollment from Washington’s 34 community and technical colleges, but the system expects to take a hit, officials said.

At Western Washington University, overall enrollment fell 5.9%, with undergraduate enrollment dropping and graduate student enrollment ticking up slightly. Central Washington University enrollment dropped 5%; Eastern Washington University is down 3%.


The Evergreen State College, Washington’s smallest public college, enrolled 6% fewer students than it expected to enroll, said President George Bridges. Because the college graduated an unusually large class in the spring, its enrollment has dropped from 2,800 last year to 2,297 this year.

Private nonprofit four-year colleges saw enrollment drops of about 2%. For all four-year schools, the biggest loss was first-year students, many of whom may be deferring the start of college until the pandemic is under control.

Seattle University, a private Jesuit school on First Hill, saw a 10% dip in freshman enrollment. Students coming from outside the Seattle area were turned off by news of protests in Seattle that made it seem like “a city at war with itself,” said Seattle U Provost Shane Martin.

Cornish College of the Arts, a small, private arts school in downtown Seattle, was hit especially hard after it had to move to all-online classes, and has seen a 17% decrease in enrollment this year. The school announced last week that it’s undergoing a financial emergency, though its president assured the community it’s not planning to close.

The pandemic’s effect on college-going could be a long-tail event — a disruptive experience that has its greatest impact years from now, said Michael Meotti, the executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, a state agency.

The high school class of 2020 didn’t get to dance at prom or walk across a stage to pick up a diploma, but those students did get 11½ years of uninterrupted education before the coronavirus upended the last four months of school, Meotti said. He described the pandemic’s effect on enrollment as a “lagging problem that’s going to show up for many years.”


He’s especially worried about the kids still in school who stand to lose a full year — or maybe more — of their in-person education. Well-off families who had planned for their kids to go to college from birth will be able to shore up lost learning with tutors or extra classes. But families without the means to do so — first-generation college families, immigrants and families of color — may not be able to provide those opportunities for their kids, Meotti said.

“There’s going to be learning loss” for those families, he said. “We don’t know what the magnitude will be, or what the recovery will look like,” and colleges may have to offer summer programs to help close the gaps, he said.

On the flip side, Meotti and other educators say this past year has forced colleges to be more nimble, making adjustments to the way they teach and deliver classes. Over the long term, that could change the way higher education is delivered, perhaps even lowering the cost. And that could expand college to a broader range of students.

A sign that college students are thinking about their educations differently: Washington State University had record-breaking enrollment gains in its online Global Campus. The university has offered an online degree since 1992, and that program grew 23% this year, much of that from students enrolled in-person at one of the physical campuses — in Pullman, Tri-Cities, Everett and Vancouver — switching to Global Campus.

WSU faculty who teach in-person also teach through the Global Campus, so they are veterans at teaching online, said Dave Cillay, chancellor of Global Campus.

Higher ed is notorious for moving extremely slowly when it comes to change, Cillay said. The pandemic forced professors to shift everything online with just two weeks’ notice, and as a result, “we’re becoming more nimble,” Cillay said.


Bridges, the Evergreen president, says he never thought a liberal-arts college like his could make a successful switch to remote learning. But so far, he thinks it’s working, and even has some advantages. For example, many professors have switched to prerecording their video lectures, making it easier to bring in guest speakers from anywhere in the world. Classes have morphed into focused, seminar-like discussions. “There are some opportunities for change and transformation I’m very excited about,” he said.

About 400 faculty members at Seattle U took part in intensive professional development to learn more about how to teach online, said Martin, the school’s provost. He thinks it’s telling that students gave the quality of teaching and learning, and their own engagement, higher marks in spring quarter than they did the previous fall quarter.

Seattle University, which is teaching most of its classes online, will shift to in-person classes as soon as it can. “We’re high-touch, we’re relational,” Martin said. At the same time, “we’ll be more open to good uses of technology and online instruction.”

That could provide some financial savings, he said. For example, Seattle University always conducted summer orientation in-person, a significant expense for families outside of Seattle who had to fly or drive here. In the future, some college services that used to take place in-person may shift online, saving students money.

“Out of every crisis comes opportunity,” he said. “This is a significant disruption of higher education, and it will be up to us to find the opportunity in this crisis.”

Others worry that getting too comfortable with online learning has a price.


Johann Neem, a Western Washington University history professor, says faculty and students alike say they’re losing out by not meeting in-person, on a physical campus. Most Western classes are being taught online. 

Neem is the author of a 2019 book, “What’s the Point of College?” where he argues that higher education should focus on cultivating the life of the mind, not serve to prepare students for specific careers.

He fears the country’s “knowledge production system,” as he described its colleges and universities, could be undermined if policymakers try to reinvent higher education to fill short-term needs during the pandemic.

If the federal government doesn’t come to the rescue with bailout money, state governments slash funding and colleges and universities seek efficiencies, those moves will lower the quality of an American college diploma, he said. But if the pandemic is short-lived and the country is back to normal in a year, Neem doesn’t expect disruptive change.