In 2019, Washington created one of the most generous college financial aid programs in the country. Compared with a program it replaced, the Washington College Grant allowed many more students to qualify for free or subsidized tuition. No longer would eligible students be denied aid because of caps tied to limited funds.

By all rights, the state's colleges should have seen a rush of applicants. Instead, enrollment plummeted.

Community and technical colleges experienced a combined 24% drop between fall 2019 and fall 2021. Public four-year institutions saw a collective drop in undergraduates of nearly 7% during that time period, with some schools' losses double or even triple that. Roughly 60,000 fewer students, in all, enrolled.

What happened, of course, was COVID-19, though education leaders are still untangling the reasons the pandemic kept students away. As colleges scramble for ways to boost their numbers, they are facing hard truths about higher education in this state — namely, lukewarm enthusiasm and a gender gap that has women outnumbering men at virtually every institution. At Lower Columbia College in Longview, for instance, the share of male students fell from 31% to 28% during the first year of the pandemic.

"We were a little stunned," said Lower Columbia President Chris Bailey.

The pandemic-caused drop in college enrollment is happening at universities across the nation, and so too is the gender gap, although it began developing decades before COVID-19 showed up. Yet, Washington's issues with college seem to run deeper.

"We didn't have a college-going culture to begin with, and the pandemic has made it worse," said Paul Francis, executive director of Council of Presidents, which represents Washington's five public universities and The Evergreen State College.

While for years Seattle has prided itself on being one of the most educated cities in the country, many credentialed residents hail from elsewhere. The state as a whole sends fewer high school graduates to college than the national average, with Washington's rate, 60% of students within a year of leaving high school, falling about 6 percentage points short.

Before the pandemic, enrollment had grown slightly at Washington's four-year institutions over the past decade. But the state's 34 community and technical colleges — whose enrollment tends to rise when the economy is bad, as laid-off workers go back to school, and fall when good — have seen a steady decline since 2010, when the last recession started to wane.

"There are very serious long-term negative impacts," said Michael Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council, a state agency that works to increase educational achievement. There's ample evidence, he said, that college-educated workers earn more and withstand economic downturns better.

Within 14 years after graduating from high school, those who get a bachelor's degree or higher earn on average $24,000 more a year than those who don't, according to state data. An associate degree or career certificate offers a $4,000 bump.

There's not a clear understanding of what's behind Washington's lackluster college attendance, nor the gender gap. "The challenge around men is something that the entire higher education community is trying to figure out," said Jan Yoshiwara, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Theories abound, tapping into the state's blue-collar roots, notions of masculinity and changing ideas about college in the internet age. That's apart from oft-heard complaints about the spiraling college costs and student debt, and a conservative critique of campuses as bastions of snowflake liberalism.

The Washington Roundtable, a business group, is launching a study to get to the bottom of what's going on, said its vice president, Neil Strege.

Certainly, college is not for everyone, and many essential jobs don't require higher education, as the pandemic has shown. Some of them pay better than ever amid the current labor shortage. Even as male college attendance declines, men still earn more on average than women and hold more positions of power.

Other jobs do require college, but should they? Some argue that college has become an unquestioned and unnecessary sorting mechanism.

Strege looks at the here and now, or at least the near future. The Roundtable estimates 70% of a projected 373,000 new jobs in Washington over the next five years will require some form of postsecondary education, whether it be a B.A. or trade industry certification.

Amazon, Microsoft and other big local employers can import talent from elsewhere in the country and world, as they have been doing. Still, Strege said: "Our businesspeople, they live here, they're operating their businesses here, they're raising their families here. They want Washington students to have an opportunity for those jobs."

'Everybody seems to be hiring'

The meteoric rise of high-tech can make people forget which industries long dominated the state: timber, agriculture, Boeing-based aerospace manufacturing, businesses linked to the port. "The state of Washington is historically a working-class place," said Margaret O'Mara, a University of Washington historian who studies labor and the economy. Heavily unionized, workers could earn a good living straight out of high school.

"There's still a very significant chunk of our workforce that is doing blue-collar work," she added. High-tech has even contributed to it, its surge of transplanted workers fueling a construction boom.

During the pandemic, work seemed more essential than college for some. "I need to help support my family," Francisco Ramos said he heard at several Seattle high schools where he works as an outreach specialist for the Seattle Promise program, offering two years of free community college tuition and mentorship to all of the city's graduating seniors.

Parents or other family members have been laid off. They have gotten sick. The economic fallout especially affects the population served by community and technical colleges, which is lower income and more diverse than four-year institutions, said Yoshiwara, of the system's board.

But Francis, of the Council of Presidents, said he believes that economic reality has also driven enrollment declines at four-year schools — particularly because the pandemic has hyper-charged the job market for those without college degrees.

"Everybody seems to be hiring and nobody can get the workers," said Brian Wood, director of support services for Nippon Dynawave Packaging, a large paper mill on Industrial Way in Longview, which lies along the Columbia River bordering Oregon. Behind Wood were factory stacks sending steam into the sky, part of the landscape along Industrial Way, along with other mills, piles of logs and "now hiring" signs.

Trucking companies, desperate for drivers, are advertising jobs paying $85,000, noted Bailey, of Lower Columbia College (though most truck drivers earn far less, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics). The school is trying to capitalize on the demand by expanding a commercial driver's program. It is also trying to get the message out that even some blue-collar jobs now require computer and other skills that colleges teach, skills that can increase long-term earning power and options.

That brought Edwar Guzman to Lower Columbia, whose campus of brick buildings sprawls across 39 acres. The 19-year-old said he's in a program teaching him how to repair high-end, computerized cars. "I wanted more knowledge to get more money," he said, estimating he can earn up to $40 an hour after he graduates, twice as much as he would earn straight out of high school.

In the past few years, Lower Columbia outreach workers have developed close relationships with high school counselors and regularly visit classes, focusing on "dual credit" courses allowing high school students free college credit.

"Does anyone know how many credits they get for this class?" Alyssa Wittrock asked students in an early childhood education class one Friday. Fifteen college credits, she told them, a quarter's worth. If they go on to college, they've just saved themselves three months and roughly $1,400.

An automotive class is up next. All the students are young men, many of whom take several trade classes a day in a large work space where construction of a car in the style of a 1923 Model T is currently underway.

"Come to LCC. Join the automotive program," Wittrock urged students. Or go to another college, she said, trying to encourage higher education in general.

Afterward, Joshua Hilker, a senior who is president of the school's auto and welding club, said he is still leaning toward going into carpentry straight from high school. "They make good money and it's decently easy," he said, estimating he could earn up to $34 an hour within a year and a half.

His friend Sean Barton, another senior, said he plans to see what the working world has to offer. In a year, he might go to college to study engineering. But careers that didn't require college could be rewarding as well, he said.

"If you go to work for someone else, you're going to work yourself to death," Barton said of manual labor. The trick, he said, is to start your own business, to take things into your own hands.

School as 'unmanly'

Judging by the numbers, more men than women clearly seem to think they can make it without college. The degree of gender lopsidedness varies by school.

At the UW, men comprise 46% of all undergraduates and just 40% of this year's freshman class on the Seattle campus. The percentage of men is even lower at The Evergreen State College, 39%.

At community and technical colleges, men make up 42% of students system-wide (excluding students whose gender was not reported or who didn't identify as men or women) — and 35% or lower at six schools, including Highline College, Tacoma Community College and Lower Columbia College.

One way to explain the college gender gap is to look at who's traditionally held the highest-paying blue-collar jobs: men, particularly white men. Women haven't had the same kind of access to those jobs, observed Meotti, of the Achievement Council. The equivalent type of jobs women have pursued, such as a health care technician position, usually require some kind of credentialing, he said.

College is now less exclusive than it was in the days when white men dominated, perhaps contributing to its societal depreciation, UW historian O'Mara speculated. A converse principle also holds, she noted. Consider: Computer programming, originally the domain of women, wasn't considered worthy of huge salaries and prestige until men got involved.

Edward Morris, a University of Kentucky sociologist, talked to a lot of male high school students for a 2012 book on gender and education. "A lot of them just experienced what was required in school as being unmanly," he said, most noticeably among young men whose parents were low-income or had not been to college.

Reading, homework, Morris said, "all that type of stuff was associated with inert activities. Whereas doing something like building a shed, that was something seen as useful" — as were science-related fields, which may help explain men's preferences when they do attend college.

The vast majority of teachers are women, which also may have something to do with male views of education, Morris allowed.

He sees another factor as influential: the traditional image of men as risk-takers. "Breaking rules is something that is seen as kind of demonstrating masculinity," Morris said. That could be getting in trouble at school, refusing to wear a motorcycle helmet or smoking in the face of countless health warnings. Or it could be circumventing college and striking out on your own.

Internet culture has stoked the allure of risk-taking. "You don't need to have a piece of paper to make money — you know, that kind of idea is now being pushed, especially among young people," said 19-year-old Zaidaan Shibuya. On social media, one can find out about various moneymaking "side hustles," as he and two of his housemates called them, and they have dabbled in them.

Still, they had decided to enroll in Seattle Central College, in part because higher education was important to their immigrant parents. "We came to this country for you to receive a higher education and become something," Salih Mamme said, expressing the view of his parents, who came from Ethiopia. Mamme was upset when he had to drop out of Seattle Central recently for financial reasons.

The three debated whether they could get a job in their field — computer science — without a college education. Maybe they could do a six-month coding boot camp, Shibuya said. However "Companies that are paying you six figures-plus, they still want a degree," he said, and he plans to go on to a four-year school.

None was troubled by being outnumbered by women on campus, not even a fourth housemate in a Seattle Central nursing program, where the gender ratio skews especially female. That housemate, Spencer Kneass, said he paid more attention to age; many of his classmates are in their 30s.

The other three hadn't really noticed the overall gender ratio because their computer science classes are mostly men, reflecting the different paths many men and women take once in college.

"Now that you mention it," said Abdikarim Salah, thinking about who he comes across outside of his classes, "I do see more women."


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