A record number of students applied to Washington’s public universities this year, including growing numbers of applicants from low-income families who qualify for a state scholarship program.
Washington’s five public universities and its one public college received record-breaking numbers of freshman applications for fall 2015, including more applications from students who qualify for a state tuition scholarship.
All told, more than 75,000 students applied — most from in-state, but also thousands from across the country and around the world.
Demographically speaking, the number of 18-year-olds expected to graduate from Washington high schools this spring is about the same as the number that graduated last year, and that’s true nationwide as well. So admissions experts say the uptick in applications likely represents a longstanding trend: High-school students continue to apply to a large number of colleges to maximize their chances — or, perhaps, their choices.
However, one figure is truly surging: the number of applicants who qualify for the state’s College Bound scholarship program for low-income students.
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In that program, low-income students who sign up in middle school, maintain a C average and stay out of legal trouble are guaranteed to have their tuition covered, as well as some of the cost of books.
Each year, more students find out about the 8-year-old program and sign up, due in large part to a concerted effort by educators.
To date, the University of Washington has admitted 86 more College Bound students in its freshman class than it did last year, a 6 percent increase. Western Washington University, which is still making admission decisions, saw an increase of 35 percent in College Bound-eligible applicants. The Evergreen State College saw eligible applicants grow by 26 percent, and Eastern Washington University’s jumped 6 percent. Washington State University is one of the few schools that saw little change.
“All the indicators for that program are positive,” said Philip Ballinger, associate vice provost for enrollment at the UW. He said the promise of going to college tuition-free makes students more likely to take academic work seriously, sign up for challenging classes and take the SAT and other college admissions tests.
WWU wrote to College Bound-eligible students last fall with a letter explaining the process for applying, the benefits they’d receive through College Bound and other ways to finance their education.
“We are very happy to see that the outreach had such a positive impact,” said Clara Capron, assistant vice president for enrollment and student services, in an email.
College Bound offers hope to students who never thought they could afford college, said Yolanda Watson Spiva, president and chief executive of College Success Foundation, a nonprofit that provides other scholarships and mentoring to low-income students.
The program, she said, has been “wildly successful, beyond anyone’s imagination.”
Some groups have been especially effective at making sure students sign up. In South King County school districts this year, nearly every eligible student applied.
“Our middle schools work really hard,” said Krista Rillo, Seattle’s College Bound scholarship counselor. “They get on the ground, on the phone, chase the students down — they don’t want them to miss this opportunity.”
The scholarship program also seems to be having an effect on high-school graduation. A recent report by the Washington Student Achievement Council showed that 75 percent of College Bound students in the class of 2014 graduated from high school, compared with 62 percent of their low-income peers who were not enrolled in the program.
College Bound doesn’t pay the full cost of tuition; students who are low-income usually qualify for federal and state financial aid, as well as private scholarships. After all the aid dollars are counted, College Bound pays for any remaining tuition expenses.
Because of the successes, the number of College Bound scholarship students is expected to continue to rise. Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget for 2015-17 includes an additional $25 million cover 5,576 more students in the program.
College Bound aside, applications overall at Washington’s six public institutions increased by 10 percent.
But some saw bigger increases than others. The University of Washington, for example, had a 16 percent increase in applications, with the growth coming from every category — in-state, out-of-state and international students.
A national TV and advertising campaign that used the UW’s “Be Boundless” theme helped draw more applicants, particularly across the Western states, said Ballinger, the vice provost.
The UW continues to enjoy top rankings in various college-rating lists, he said, and “the perceptions about the UW are solid in terms of academic strength. … Relative to other options, we’re still a really good one.”
He also said the applicant pool was noticeably stronger this year — so much so that the UW increased the number of freshmen it admitted by more than 2,000 students, expecting a smaller percentage of them to ultimately say yes. That’s because stronger students usually have many options to choose from, Ballinger said.
For Washington residents, the odds of getting a big UW envelope with a one-word salutation, “Congratulations,” were pretty good this year. Of the 11,149 Washington students who applied, 63 percent were admitted — slightly lower than last year, when 65 percent got in. The UW projects that 4,300 in-state students will ultimately say yes, and enroll this fall as freshmen.
An additional 1,550 transfer students, 78 percent of them Washington residents, are expected to enroll, most of them as juniors.
Once again this year, the UW received more applications from out of state than from in state. Nearly 17,000 students applied to become Huskies from outside Washington, and about 52 percent were admitted. The UW expects about 1,200 of them to enroll.
Nearly 9,000 students from overseas applied, and 39 percent were admitted. The UW expects about 900 of those students to enroll.
WSU also broke its record-setting application number from last year, drawing 17,400 applicants. WSU is still taking applications and sending out letters, but expects to enroll about 4,000 freshmen this fall — the same as last year.
WWU, which had fewer applications in 2013 and 2014, had its best year ever, bringing in nearly 10,000 applications.
About 63,000 students are expected to graduate from Washington public schools this spring, and another 4,000 from private schools, according to projections made by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education. That’s about 1,000 more students than graduated last year.