SEATTLE -- Community college tuition has gone up so much during the economic downturn that students at Washington's two-year colleges are now paying what a University of Washington student paid just over a decade ago.
College officials say $4,000 to $5,000 a year in full-time tuition, depending on credit hours and majors, is still a bargain compared to what it costs to go to UW today but the state's 34 community and technical colleges do have about 6 percent fewer students this fall.
Marty Brown, the executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, believes that drop in student enrollment is due to a number of factors including tuition and the fact that some people are going back to work.
Kevin Moh, who is in his final quarter at Seattle Central Community College, has seen his quarterly tuition and fees go from about $1,100 a quarter two and a half years ago to about $1,500 a quarter this year.
Moh works several part-time jobs as a dishwasher, works summers helping his uncle who runs a landscaping business and gets some financial aid. But he doesn't complain about the cost of tuition.
"School's an investment," said Moh, who plans to transfer to Central Washington University to study aviation after he gets his associates degree from Seattle Central.
Colleges have not been able to keep up with students' financial aid needs, but they're doing what they can from financial aid to online classes and open source textbooks, Brown said.
The state's Running Start program also saves more than 3,000 young people money by enabling them to earn college credits for free while still enrolled in high school.
Despite the additional money the Legislature has put into the state need grant program, more than 30,000 students were eligible for a state grant this fall but didn't get one because there's not enough money to go around, Brown said. About 74,000 students did get a state need grant.
There's no question that some students are beginning to find it difficult to afford college, said Laura Saunders, interim president of Bellevue College.
So the state's largest community college is doing whatever it can to keep them in school.
The college's own fundraising efforts made it possible to distribute $460,000 in scholarships on top of state and federal grants and loans. A textbook rental program is allowing students to borrow a book for $30 instead of usual $100 or more. Students can check out a computer from the school library for use all semester. School officials have made a commitment to not raise student fees.
Seattle Central Community College is doing some research this year to gather more information about why students drop out, hoping to find out how much of an impact tuition increases are having on their students, said college spokeswoman Patricia Paquette.
They may want to talk to student Patricia Barnes, 55, who has gone back to school thanks to financial aid, but sees how much some of her fellow students are struggling to afford college. She worries about the student loans they are racking up and the cost of textbooks.
Barnes didn't get a chance to go to college as a young person after becoming a teen mom and went straight to work instead.
"I believe education should be affordable especially in times like this," she said.
Tuition has gone up so much during the recession because the Legislature has been cutting the state higher education budget and told colleges they could charge more to balance their budgets.
Lawmakers have cut more than $1.4 billion from higher education since 2009, according to the Washington State Budget and Policy Center.
Saunders and Brown said they felt the state had hit the point where tuition rates have become a factor for students considering enrolling in college. She expressed optimism, however, that both candidates for governor would reprioritize higher education in the state budget.
While the state constitution protects K-12 education, cuts to higher education have become one of the main ways the Legislature balances the budget.
"I suspect we're at the end of that," Saunders said. "I think community colleges are going to say to the Legislature: Don't raise tuition again. Don't balance the budget on the backs of our students.”