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News / Northwest

College enrollment rose in 2023, but Washington state ranks low nationally in new students

By Karlee Van De Venter, Tri-City Herald
Published: March 31, 2024, 6:00am

Some states seem to be straying away from the traditional college experience at a higher rate than others.

A recent study from the personal finance site Wealth of Geeks reviewed data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center on the number of undergraduate students who began a degree in 2023, in order to determine which states had the smallest percentage of their population.

“In a landscape where the demands of the workforce are changing more quickly than ever, the adaptability, specific skill sets, and practical experience offered by alternative educational paths are becoming increasingly important,” stated the Wealth of Geeks founder, Michael Dinich, in a press release. “This is not to diminish the value of a university degree but to acknowledge that there are many alternative pathways to a successful career.”

Overall enrollment rose across the country for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, the growth is attributed entirely to older freshman, ages 21 and up, with stagnant rates among 18- to 20-year-olds.

However, enrollment rates are not as high as they were a decade ago, across Washington state and the country.

States with the lowest college enrollment

The 10 states with the fewest new college students in 2023 were:

  • Alaska
  • New Hampshire
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • Washington
  • Hawai’i
  • Tennessee
  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • West Virginia

Sitting at fifth place, Washington had only 3.26% of its population enroll at a university in 2023.

Alaska has the lowest overall with 2.39%, and Utah has the highest at 6.83%.

Washington has a larger state population than each of the states ahead of it on the list. Of 7.7 million Washingtonians, 253,842 people started a degree last year. However, this is up 2.5% from 2022, according to Wealth of Geeks.

About two-thirds of states saw a small increase in enrollments compared to 2022, according to the National Student Clearinghouse data. These increases were primarily in community colleges and among freshman ages 21 and older.

States on the west side saw more overall growth than anywhere else in the country.