Enrollment at Walla Walla Community College is now on the decline after seeing a steady rise in tuition for years, including a 14 percent boost in the past two years.
Is this the proverbial canary in the coal mine indicating the steady rise of tuition has created a toxic situation for colleges? We fear it might be.
The tuition increase at four-year colleges has been even more dramatic, over 28 percent in the past two years.
Over the last decade the tuition increases have been fueled by the Legislature's decisions to cut taxpayer subsidy for state colleges and universities as a way to deal with the state's budget troubles. The college and universities raised tuition as a way to plug the holes created by the lack of state subsidy.
We don't blame college and university officials for taking this action. They were left with no good choices -- either increase tuition or decrease the quality and quantity of their class offerings.
Last spring we wrote in this space that state lawmakers (who gave permission to raise tuition) and higher education officials (who were forced to request higher tuition) are deluding themselves if they really believe financial aid and grants are going to keep college affordable.
At some point, we said, the gap between available financial aid and the cost of going to college will simply be too wide. It's going to swallow up students from middle-income families. It looks as if the gap is already getting to the point where college is becoming unaffordable for some and the problem will only grow worse.
The tuition at WWCC is, relatively speaking, very reasonable. Tuition is $3,527 for a full-time in-state student going to school three quarters, which is a full year. The tuition at Washington State University is pushing $15,000 a year for a full-time in-state student.
Yet, despite the relative affordability at WWCC, it has hit a breaking point for some students' education budgets.
WWCC Director of Admissions/Registrar Carlos Delgadillo said enrollment reports to the Board of Trustees for January and February reflect the drops for fall and winter quarters. Enrollment was down 3.3 percent at the end of the fall quarter compared to last year, while winter enrollment was down about 7 percent compared to last year. This follows a statewide trend. The Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges reported a 4 percent drop in enrollment early into the fall quarter statewide.
"It's hard to put your finger on any one thing," Delgadillo said. "I would imagine that tuition increases make it harder for students to come to school."
The Legislature should take notice. Lawmakers must establish a minimum funding threshold for all state universities and colleges. These are public schools established so all citizens, not just the wealthy, would have an opportunity to obtain a college education.
The ever-rising college tuitions has created a toxic situation.