The Washington Legislature gives higher education a smaller slice of the budget pie than it did 34 years ago. Here's where the money is going instead.

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Earlier this month, after University of Washington President Michael Young accepted a job as head of Texas A&M University, we compared the amount of money Washington invests in higher education to the amount invested in public universities in the Lone Star State.

Among other things, the comparison showed that Washington is spending less per student on higher education than it did in the 1980s, when inflation is taken into account — and that it spends less per student today than Texas does.

One reader raised a provocative question: If Washington is spending less per student than it did 20 or 30 years ago, where is the money going instead?

The short answer: human services. That category has grown because of a significant expansion of enrollment of in-state subsidized health care, health care inflation, a growing prison population, and state-supported nursing home care.

Here’s a pie chart that shows how the biennial budget played out in 1979-81, and the same budget 34 years later, in 2013-15:


Thirty-five years ago, higher education received 16 percent of the budget ($928 million of a $5.8 billion budget). In the last biennium, it received only 9 percent of the budget (or $3 billion of a $34 billion budget).

If you take inflation into account, you’ll find that the $928 million appropriation in 1979-81 is worth a little more than $2.6 billion in today’s dollars. Roughly during that time period, there was a 54 percent increase in the number of full-time students going to public colleges in Washington — from 162,416 in 1983 to 249,331 in 2013.

State budget analysts look at the numbers in a different light. In their eyes, higher education, unlike other state agencies, can raise money itself — by charging higher rates for tuition.

The total operating budget for higher education  — which includes all the money the universities receive, including tuition — was $1.7 billion in 1979-81, and in 2013-15 it was $12.2 billion. For both time periods, that’s a figure that represents 18 percent of the state’s entire operating budget — but again, remember, that’s for a larger student population.