Office of Planning and Budgeting

Undergraduates who graduated with student loan debt from four-year colleges in 2014 owed an average of $28,950, according to a recently released report by The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).[1][2] 69 percent of graduates have loan debt, the same figure as last year and slightly higher than it was in 2004 (65 percent). The average amount of debt per borrower is up 56 percent from 2004 – more than double the inflation rate over the same period – but only up 2 percent from 2013.

A number of factors have contributed to the rising student debt load over the past decade. States have decreased their investment in public higher education over the last ten years, causing students at public institutions to bear a higher percentage of the funding burden. Since 2004, the share of public higher education funding provided by states has dropped (from 62 percent to 51 percent) and the share paid by students and their families (in the form of tuition) has increased (from 32 percent to 43 percent).

In addition, the growth of Pell Grants has not kept up with rising costs. The TICAS report shows that between 2004 and 2012—the last year in which data is available—recipients of Pell Grants at public four-year colleges saw average cost of attendance rise by $7,400 and grant aid rise by just $2,900. At private, non-profit colleges the gap is even wider; costs rose by $14,400 and grants increased by $8,700.

Washington state is performing well with regard to student loans: only 58 percent of Washington bachelor’s degree recipients who graduated in 2014 had loans, and those who did had an average of $24,804, more than $4,000 below the national average. The University of Washington also looks good by these metrics: thanks in large part to the University’s commitment to institutional aid through programs such as Husky Promise, less than half of all UW undergraduates who graduated in 2014 had student debt and the average debt burden was $21,558, well below the state and national averages.

While Washington’s performance relative to its peers is laudable, student debt is still a major issue for many students. The TICAS report offers a series of proposals to mitigate the student debt load, among them doubling the size of Pell Grants, simplifying income-driven repayment plans, and improving student loan servicing to make it easier for students to pay back their loans. It is important that policymakers remain focused on reducing the student debt burden and continue working with institutions to make higher education accessible and affordable for all students during and after graduation.




[1] It’s important to note that borrowing rates and debt levels vary widely by state, college and sector.

[2] Because the federal government does not require colleges to report debt levels for their graduates, data in the TICAS report is based on voluntary reporting by institutions. Hardly any for-profit colleges voluntarily report their graduates’ average debt, so this year’s debt figures are for public and nonprofit colleges only.

The Department of Education recently released their annual report detailing the 3-year cohort default rate (CDR)—a metric that measures what percentage of postsecondary students default on their loan payments within the first three years of entering repayment—and the data are encouraging: the 3-year CDR for FY 2012 is 11.8 percent, almost two percent lower than the previous year and three percent lower than FY 2010.

While reasons for the drop are uncertain, administration officials have credited the increased enrollment in income-based repayment plans as partially responsible. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has cheered the lower default rate but cautions that there is more work to do. “There’s no real reason why we can’t significantly reduce default rates even further,” he told reporters in a statement reported by Inside Higher Ed. “We’re going to keep working to hold schools accountable.”

The report also breaks down the CDR by school, state, and institution type. Below is a breakdown of the most salient statistics.

National statistics:

  • Public four year institutions saw their 3-year CDR drop to 7.6 percent, down from 8.9 percent last year.
  • Private non-profit four year institutions’ default rate also dropped, to 6.3 percent from 7 percent.
  • Private for-profit four year institutions’ CDR dropped to 14.7 percent, down from 18.6 percent last year.

State statistics:

  • Schools in Washington state have an average 3-year default rate of 10.1 percent, slightly below the national average.
  • The University of Washington performed exceptionally well by this measure: the 3-year CDR for UW dropped to 2.7 percent, almost 5 percent lower than the national average for public four year universities and down from 4.3 percent last year.

As previously stated, the declining CDR average nationwide is a hopeful sign for the future of student loan repayment. Nevertheless, loans remain a massive strain on millions of college students and graduates and more must be done to alleviate the student debt burden. The CDR itself has come under fire as a flawed metric; it only measures those students who default on payments and does not take into account the almost one in three borrowers who make payments but cannot make any progress on paying down their debt or the share of students at a given institution who borrow. Some in the education policy world have called for using loan repayment rates, rather than default rates, as the primary metric for gauging an institution’s ability to prepare its students for repayment.


Reuters recently ranked the UW as the fourth most innovative university in the world among public and private institutions, surpassed only by Stanford, MIT and Harvard.  When looking at public institutions alone, however, the UW topped the list.

As the Seattle Times noted, “The ranking takes into account academic papers, which indicate basic research performed at a university, and patent filings and successes, which point to an institution’s interest in protecting and commercializing its discoveries.”

In addition to the innovation ranking, Washington Monthly recently ranked UW Seattle as the #1 “Best Bang for the Buck” among Western institutions.  Institutions are scored on “’Net’ (not sticker) price, how well they do graduating the students they admit, and whether those students go on to earn at least enough to pay off their loans.”  For more information about the “Best Bang for the Buck” rankings, please see the companion article.

Leadership in the House Appropriations Committee released a third operating budget proposal today in the form of 2P2SHB 1106 and PSHB 2269. This proposal still differs from the Senate budget proposal SB 6050 and varies from the previous House operating budget P2SHB 1106.

All of higher education (including financial aid) would receive nearly $3.348 billion (8.8 percent of near general fund appropriations). Under this proposal, the UW receives a total appropriation of $650.5 million, of which $598.19 million is from Near General Fund account.

Here are some of the key points from the House Budget (2P2SHB 1106) released today :

  • Tuition – This budget assumes tuition rates remain at the levels charged in 2012-2013. Funding is provided to freeze resident undergrad tuition in the first year; however, funding in the second year is provided in HB 2269 (see below).
  • Compensation Increase – This budget proposal is similar to prior proposals, authorizing a 3% and 1.8% for FY16 and 17 respectively; in addition, this budget provides limited funds for the UW’s contracts with SEIU and WFSE.
  • WWAMI – This budget contains a proviso to transfer $4.68 million a year from WSU to the UW to maintain WWAMI and support expansion of this program to 60 students.
  • O&M Funding – $1.762 million over the biennium to cover the Operating and maintenance cost of UW Bothell Discovery Hall which is the same as the House budget, but slightly higher than the Governors funding.

HB 2269 was introduced alongside the primary appropriations bill and would fund the following activities:

  • Medical Residencies – HB 2269 appropriates $8 million over the biennium for medical residencies.
  • Computer Science – This budget provides $8 million over the biennium to increase bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer science.
  • Computer Science Building – This budget appropriates $32 million over the biennium from State building construction account.

We anticipate significant activity this week and will post additional updates to the blog.

Leadership in the Senate Ways and Means Committee released a new Operating budget proposal on May 28th 2015 in the form of Senate Bill 6050. This proposal makes significant changes to the engrossed Senate operating budget, ESSB 5077 and continues to differ from the engrossed House operating budget, ESHB 1106.

Though the 2015 legislature is scheduled to adjourn today, no compromise operating or capital budget exists. Thus a second special session will be required.

All of higher education (including financial aid) would receive nearly $3.6 billion or 9.2 percent increase from the Governor and House budgets. UW receives a total appropriation of $685.7 million of which $666.36 million is from Near General Fund account.

Here are some of the key points from the Senate “Offer “Ways & Means Budget proposal:

  • Tuition affordability program– This budget reduces the operating fee portion of resident undergrad tuition to 14 percent of the State’s average annual wage in FY16 and FY17. It provides $107 million to offset the reduction in operating fees and an additional funding to backfill the foregone tuition revenue. In spite of the above funding, UW anticipates a shortfall of $3.7 million over the biennium.
  • WWAMI – Senate budget provides $9 million over the biennium for continued operations of the WWAMI medical school program, and the bill requires that the state cost per student per year not exceed $45,000 in Spokane.
  • O&M Funding – $1.762 million over the biennium to cover the Operating and maintenance cost of UW Bothell Discovery Hall which is the same as the House budget, but slightly higher than the Governors funding.
  • Compensation Increase – “Like the House proposal, this budget authorizes 3% and 1.8 % increases for FY16 and FY17, respectively. However, this budget would only partially fund the cost of those increases”.

Please refer to our OPB Brief for more information about the special session senate chair budget. Special session house budget is expected to be released Monday.

report released today by Demos, a New York public policy think tank, attempts to identify the reasons why tuition prices at public four-year institutions have increased over the last decade. The findings reinforce the understanding that declining state support, rather than “administrative bloat,” is the primary cause of tuition increases. Although administrative spending did increase marginally, the authors attribute the slight change to rising health care costs[1]  and to new support services required over the past decade – such as those to support growing technology needs.

The report analyzed data from the Delta Cost Project and examined research institutions separately from institutions that primarily award bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Between 2001 and 2011, state funding per student fell by $3,081 at research universities and, simultaneously, tuition per student increased “in near lockstep,” by $3,628. Consequently, the majority of funding formerly provided by the state is now borne by students and their families.

The Causes of Rising Tuition at Public Research Universities

(taken from Figure 6 in the report)

Causes of rising tuition - research universities

As seen in the figure above, of the tuition hikes at public research universities:

  • 79 percent is attributable to declining state appropriations,
  • 9 percent is due to higher instruction costs (largely the result of rising health insurance premiums)
  • 6 percent is due to more construction costs, and
  • 6 percent is due to increased administrative spending.

With regards to “administrative bloat” – which some still view as a key driver of tuition increases – the report finds that “the number of executives and administrators has actually slightly decreased relative to the size of the student body” and the average number of total employees per 1,000 students has remained relatively constant over the last decade.

Instead, public institutions are employing more part-time faculty and professional staff (e.g. employees who work in admissions, human resources, information technology, etc.). “All of these things are necessary to support the growing university,” said Robbie Hiltonsmith, the report’s author.  Hiltonsmith also noted that when state funding for higher education declines, colleges can either raise tuition to make up for the forgone revenue or look for ways to trim expenses.  “If there isn’t a lot of fat to cut, then their only option is to raise tuition or lose quality of education.”

[1] On average, the amount spent by public universities to provide health insurance to staff and faculty rose by nearly $2,700 per employee between 2001 and 2011, a 40 percent increase.

On Tuesday, Leadership in the Senate Ways & Means Committee released its operating budget proposal, Proposed Substitute Senate Bill 5077 which makes significant changes to the Governor’s proposal and differs significantly from the House proposal.  Under the Senate proposal, the UW would receive $674.39 million of Near General Fund State across the biennium.

Here are some of the key points from the Senate Budget proposal:

  • Tuition affordability program – The Senate budget reduces the operating fee portion of resident undergraduate tuition to 18 percent of the state’s average wage in FY16 and 14 percent of the state’s average wage in FY17 onwards. It provides $96 million over the biennium to offset the reduction in operating fees, which we believe falls short by $1.2 million in FY16 and $2.8 million in FY17.
  • WWAMI – The Senate budget provides $1.25 million per year for continued operations of the WWAMI program.
  • O&M Funding – Like the House budget, the Senate provides $1.762 million over the biennium to cover the operation and maintenance costs of UW Bothell Discovery Hall.
  • STEM Investments – The Senate proposal  provides $2 million per year to increase bachelor’s degrees in Science, Technology, engineering and Math fields.
  • Compensation Increase – The Senate bill rejects state-funded contracts with classified staff. Instead, the Senate Chair budget would fund wage increases at $1,000 per employee and require that the University either renegotiate contracts to match this funding level or locally fund the difference in perpetuity. The Senate budget provides funds for faculty and staff wage increases at $1,000 per employee and allows the UW to deviate from this assumption with local funds.

The Senate capital budget is expected to be released next week .  For more information, please see the OPB Brief.


A new report from the Brookings Institution concludes that student loan borrowers may not be in such a dire situation as media reports commonly suggest.  The report, Is a Student Loan Crisis on the Horizon?, finds that while student debt levels have risen along with college tuition over the past two decades, college graduates’ incomes have kept pace.  The authors analyze data on student borrowers over the period 1989-2010.  They conclude that education debt has not become a greater burden on borrowing households.

  • Education debt increased most among households with higher levels of educational attainment.  Roughly one-quarter of the increase in student debt can be explained by an increase in the number of households with college degrees, especially graduate degrees.  Since 1989, student borrowers with graduate degrees saw their average debt level increase from about $10,000 to about $40,000.  Over the same time, the debt level for borrowers with bachelor’s degrees increased by a smaller margin, from $6,000 to $16,000.
  • On average, student borrowers’ incomes more than kept pace with increases in student debt.  While average household debt increased by about $18,000 between 1992 and 2010, average annual household income for borrowers increased by about $7,400 over that same period.  The average increase in earnings would pay for the increase in debt incurred in just 2.4 years.
  • The ratio of monthly debt payments to monthly income has held steady.  Between 1992 and 2010, the median borrowing household consistently paid between three and four percent of monthly income toward student debt.  The mean monthly payment decreased from 15 percent to 7 percent of income over that period.

Student debt levels have increased over the past two decades.  The authors conclude that this is largely driven by tuition increases over that time.  However, higher levels of student borrowing also partly reflect an investment in higher levels of education.  For the average borrower, that investment pays off in higher incomes.

Overall student debt levels of recent bachelor’s degree recipients continue to rise according to Student Debt and the Class of 2013, a new report from the Project on Student Debt at The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS).  The report includes 2013 state- and college-level debt data for graduates from colleges that opt to disclose their graduates’ debt. However, since very few for-profit colleges choose to disclose debt data, the report’s figures represent only public and nonprofit colleges.

  • At the national level, 69 percent of graduating seniors had student loans and those that borrowed had an average debt of $28,400 – a 2 percent increase over 2012. For comparison, in 2013, 50 percent of UW undergraduates graduated with debt, and those that borrowed graduated with an average debt load of $21,471.
  • At the state level, borrowers’ average debt at graduation ranged from $18,656 to $32,795, and the likelihood of graduating with debt ranged from 43 to 76 percent. In six states, average debt was greater than $30,000; in one state, it was under $20,000. Nearly all the highest debt states were in the Northeast and Midwest, with the lowest debt states in the West and South. In Washington, 58 percent of graduates had debt, and those that borrowed had an average of $24,418 in loans. Debbie Cochrane, research director at TICAS and coauthor of the report, says, “The importance of state policy and investment cannot be overstated when it comes to student debt levels.”
  • At the college level, borrowers’ average debt at graduation varied widely – ranging from less than $2,500 to more than $71,000 – and the likelihood of graduating with debt also varied – running from 10 percent to 100 percent. At nearly one in five (18%) colleges, average debt rose at least 10 percent, while at 7 percent of colleges, average debt decreased by at least 10 percent. In general, colleges with higher costs had higher average debt at graduation, although that wasn’t always the case.

The authors note that the report’s data have significant limitations, primarily because colleges are not required to report debt levels for their graduates. Only 57 percent of public and nonprofit bachelor’s degree-granting colleges provided data, representing 83 percent of graduates in those sectors. And for-profits, as mentioned, were excluded because hardly any chose to disclose their graduates’ debt.[1] Even colleges that do provide data may understate graduates’ debt loads because they do not include transfer students and are often not aware of all private loans.

Thus, the report’s main recommendation is to get better debt data via federal collection of cumulative student debt data for all schools. The report also makes recommendations about reducing students’ need to borrow, helping students make better-informed college decisions, and simplifying income-driven repayment plans.

See the report or TICAS’ interactive map for more information.

[1] Federal data for 2012 graduates of for-profit. four-year colleges show that the vast majority (88%) took out student loans and that borrowers graduated with an average of $39,950 in debt—43 percent more than bachelor’s recipients in the other sectors. In addition, students at for-profits tend to default on their loans much more frequently than students in other sectors.

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) recently released its annual update on federal student loan cohort default rates (CDRs), which measure the frequency with which student borrowers at all levels (undergraduate, graduate, etc.) default on their federal loans. Although the UW’s CDR rose while the national CDR declined, the UW’s rate still remains well below that of the nation.

ED is in its first year of using only the more accurate three-year CDR measure – as opposed to the two-year CDR. Thus, this year’s report only includes the FY2011 three-year CDR, which represent the percentage of student borrowers who entered into repayment in FY2011, but failed to make loan payments for a 270-day period within three years of leaving school.

The Department provides breakdowns of its data by institution type, state and school. Here are some key findings:

  • The national three-year CDR declined from 14.7 to 13.7 percent overall.
  • The three-year rate decreased over last year’s rates for all sectors:
    • Public institutions decreased very slightly from 13.0 to 12.9 percent,
    • Private nonprofits decreased from 8.2 to 7.2 percent, and
    • For-profits’ whopping 21.8 percent rate decreased to 19.1 percent.
  • The UW’s three-year CDR increased slightly from 3.9 to 4.3 percent, but this is still nearly 10 percentage points below the national average

While this is good news, many students still struggle to afford ever-increasing tuition fees and/or to repay their student loans. The UW reaches out to our former students at risk of default on their Stafford Loans and helps identify federal repayment options that could benefit them. Former UW students who are in default or experiencing difficulties repaying their loans can contact the Office of Student Financial Aid for assistance (, 206-543-6101). Students can also visit to explore their repayment options.

Next Page →