College-going in Spokane Both Stagnant and Declining

by Dr. Patrick Jones

Over the past decade, Spokane County public schools have made slow but steady progress in graduating its seniors. The same slow progress holds for Spokane public school seniors continuing with their formal education – at least for those headed to a four-year institution. For those opting to go to a community college, not so much.

Graduation rates within five years of starting as a freshman exceeded 87% in school year 2020-2021. That is up from 78% in the 2010-2011 school year. The average rate among all the 13 school districts in the County has edged that of the state by two or three percentage points every year over this interval. That can be viewed here. Perhaps a 90% “extended” graduation rate is shortly within reach.

College-going behavior, however, has not mirrored this success. Trends indicator 3.5.1 provides a quick visualization of the post-secondary experience of the County’s graduating seniors. The purple bar has gotten shorter over time!

The data behind the graph cover all public high school seniors who are enrolled in public or private non-for-profit post-secondary institutions within one year of graduating. Trade schools and for-profit schools are not part of the mix. Compiling the extensive data sets is time consuming for the Washington State agency, the Education Research & Data Center (ERDC), that issues the numbers and the ERDC must necessarily wait a year for students’ decisions to be recorded. As a consequence, the most recent graduating year which we can account for is 2019, whether for those high school students who took four or five years, or even longer, to graduate.

An inspection of the graph should make apparent that the darker purple section has been relatively constant over the near 15 years measured. This tracks the share of graduating seniors in the County’s public schools who are in a four-year institution within one year after graduation. In fact, the share has climbed from 30% for the 2005 graduating class to 35% for the class of 2019. This gradual increase observed for the County also holds for the state overall.

The lighter purple part of the bar, however, depicts a different outcome. While 29% of the County’s graduating public high school seniors in 2005 went on to a two-year college, only 22% did for the class of 2019. Generally, the experience throughout the state hasn’t been much different, with the share dropping from 31% to 25% over the same time period.

There are undoubtedly many reasons behind the decline enrollment here and throughout the state in the community colleges. One usually cited is the connection to the economy. If the economy is doing well, enrollment at community colleges suffers. It is revealing that the highest shares of County public high school seniors enrolling in two-year schools took place in 2008 and 2009, the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Further, it could well be that four-year schools have attracted more of the student population that has enrolled in community colleges with the intent to transfer to a four-institution some later, with or without an Associates degree. In the state, this share of the community college population peaked in the 2010-2011 school year, or in the beginning months of the economy recovery.

The decline in college-going behavior by high school seniors may augur poorly for those occupations that don’t require a Bachelor’s degree but do demand Associates degree or some formal certification. There are dozens of occupations, at the “mid” or technician level that require substantial, school-based training beyond high school.

Of course, some graduating seniors may take a year off between high school and post-secondary education. That may be due to a gap year, down time to contemplate what’s next in a path to a career, or to financial constraints. Regardless of the reason, it is usually more difficult to resume student life if too much time elapses after graduating from high school.

At the Institute, we have taken a deeper dive into the state forecast for occupations that require a Bachelor’s degree. Although the percentage of the workforce that is projected to need at least that degree in the latter half of this decade is 27%, even a 35% share of state graduating seniors going on to a four-year institution will not be adequate. The overriding reason is demographics – due to the difference in size of generations – boomer vs. millennial – retirements will outnumber new entrants to those occupations requiring a Bachelor’s degrees.  This is likely happening now. Another reason lies in the unfortunate fact that many students who begin at a four-year school do not graduate with a degree.

Workarounds exist, of course. Companies can offer their own training in place of a degree requirement. Highly specific, short-term immersion schools, such as coding academies, may fill the training bill. People can return to formal training, especially at community colleges after more than year outside of school. Those entering the military immediately after high school may attend a two- or four-year institution after discharge. And some of the graduating seniors may be enrolled in private, for-profit programs.

Thankfully, our society offers a myriad of choices to skill up. The post-secondary routes, traditionally taken right after high school however, are not as filled they once were. Unless non-traditional pathways offer adequate alternatives, we should be concerned. The specific needs of a high-performing economy and the general needs of functioning in an increasingly complex world are not going away.