In an email to high school guidance counselors, University of Washington Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Philip Ballinger revealed that while total undergraduate admissions applications are up 6.5 percent year over year, from 24,181 for the quarter starting in autumn 2011 to 25,758 for 2012, they are actually down 5.6 percent for resident applicants:

Washington Resident Applications Received:9,193 (-548, -5.6%)
U.S. Nonresident Applications Received:9,988 (+440, +4.6%)
International Applications Received:6,577 (+1685, +34.4%)

Due to demographic trends, resident freshman applications have declined statewide in recent years, a trend the UW has managed to buck up until now. So some drop in applications would not be unexpected. "Still," writes Ballinger, "the decrease is larger than I would normally have expected."

Ballinger goes on to ask the guidance counselors on the list for their thoughts on the reasons behind the decline, and one of the first to respond makes a striking and disturbing point. Carollynn Hanson, the college and career counselor at Auburn Mountainview High School writes:

What I am hearing, however, is that the cost of attendance is so high. The most savvy parent and senior have done their research and are finding that out-of-state colleges, particularly private institutions, are not THAT much more expensive given the help they anticipate receiving. Nearly all of these kids have stellar grades/resume so will receive more in the way of merit scholarships as enticement to leave the state. Bottom line, they pay no more and often pay less “out of pocket”.

Despite my preaching about the wonderful array of colleges available to them in this state, the most accomplished students all look to leave here. The UW, frankly, is their “back-up” school. This, I think, is our biggest challenge. WHY do our kids seem to think our in-state colleges are not “good enough”? I have been a high school counselor for over 25 years now and this is a fairly recent trend.

It's true. For the best and the brightest our state produces, many of the top, private universities are now cheaper than the UW, depending on family income. For example, at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, where tuition and fees now list at an exorbitant $42,098 (four times the UW's resident undergraduate $10,574), and total costs, including room, board, books, and personal expenses, are estimated at $57,360, the 182 freshmen coming from families earning between $40,000 and $69,999 received a median financial aid award of $51,870. And that's all grant and work study. Zero loans.

That's an Ivy League education for virtually nothing. Why wouldn't you choose a school like Penn over the UW if you have the option?

If Washington can't compete to keep its best students in state, many of them will move away and never come back, creating a generational brain drain that will make our whole economy less competitive. And that's something legislators and business leaders might want to think about before they oppose the revenue necessary to maintain an affordable, first class public university system.