College attendance is on the decline in Washington, as it is nationally. The reasons for this are well-known: fewer 18-year-olds, paired with ever-increasing tuition rates and widespread skepticism about whether higher education is worth the money.  

Those forces have resulted in 1 million fewer college students nationally than before the pandemic — surely a cause for concern. But against that backdrop, new state data documenting the effects of financial aid on students’ future economic mobility provide a jolt of optimism. 

Economic analysts at the Washington Student Achievement Council tracked 44,050 public high school graduates who received financial aid and went on to graduate from a public college or university. They uncovered some heartening news. All students who came from families with household incomes below $63,000 saw their economic status rise within three years of earning a degree and entering the labor force. 

Young adults from families at the lowest quartile ($35,000 in annual household income) were soon earning more than their parents’ total pay. This was true whether students graduated from a two-year or four-year college.  

Most striking of all, students who grew up in homes at the 12th or 13th income percentile leapfrogged toward the 50th income percentile after earning a college degree. Michael Meotti, executive director of WSAC, considers this proof that Washington’s $424 million state financial aid program — which he calls the most generous in the country — is paying off. 

The trajectory was particularly marked for kids growing up in homes where English was not the first language. Their family incomes were 40% less, on average, than those of other high school students. Yet within three years of graduating from college, these nonnative English speakers were earning wages comparable to their peers. 


“The striking consistency of upward mobility across the most disadvantaged demographic groups suggests that completing a postsecondary degree is an essential lever for improving intergenerational economic opportunities,” Meotti says. 

About 42% of state high school graduates receive need-based aid for college. And it’s fair to say that without it, many of them would not become upwardly mobile taxpayers. In that sense, Washington’s financial aid program is a win for all.  

There is, however, one persistent and worrisome thread in the data that quells all-out celebration. Black, Hispanic, Native American and Pacific Islander students — whether they come from poor families or middle-income homes — are less likely than white and Asian kids to reach the top quartile in wages. The analysts describe this, delicately, as an “opportunity ceiling.” Meotti calls it systemic racism in the job market. 

Whatever your preferred term, it’s clear that we have more work to do.