Is Spokane A College Town?

Is Spokane a “College Town”?

by Brian Kennedy and Dr. Patrick Jones

When we think of Spokane, college town doesn’t typically come to mind. However, in 2017, there were roughly 40,000 students enrolled in the fall term of the community college system and universities in the county according to data taken from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). These students represent 8% of the overall population, over 3 percentage points higher than the state average at 5%. How does this high level of college students translate into the educational attainment profile of county residents, and importantly, how does that relate to the overall regional economy? 

Indicators 3.6.2 and 3.6.3 show the share of the population ages 25 and over by the highest level of educational attainment. Combining the two measures shows that 45.2% of Spokane County residents were estimated to hold an associate’s degree or higher in 2017. There is no statistical difference between the county and the state average, which sits at 45.4% of the population. Compared to the U.S., however, our community lies about 5 percentage points higher. Moreover, Spokane County is more educated than all of its Eastern Washington urban area counterparts. Comparable shares for neighboring metro areas are: the Tri-Cities at 34.6%, Wenatchee at 33.2%, and Walla Walla, the closest contender, at 40.6%. It’s undoubtedly not coincidence that overall educational attainment is a main focus of Greater Spokane Inc. (GSI) where, according to Meg Lindsay, director of education and talent, “our focus on education and our region has set a goal of 60% attainment for those holding a high-level certificate, 2- or 4-year degree by 2025.”  

With such a high education level overall, how does the distribution between two and four year degrees look? The story behind the numbers of indicator 3.6.3 shows that for bachelors and graduate degrees, Spokane is still lagging the state but growing at a quicker pace. In 2017, 19.6% of the population in Spokane County held a bachelor’s degree. This estimate fell short of the state average by 2.4 percentage points, whereas there was no statistical difference with the national benchmark.  

However in terms of growth, Spokane has been slightly outperforming both the state and the U.S. From 2005 to 2017, the county’s share of the population with these degrees increased by 2.9 percentage points while shares of Washington and the U.S. increased at a slightly lower pace, 2.4 and 2.5, percentage points, respectively. Most of Spokane’s growth has occurred in the last few years, with a statistically significant change of nearly 2 percentage points in this share since 2014. 

Similar to the picture with bachelor’s degrees, Spokane County has seen statistically significant growth in the share of the population ages twenty-five and older with a graduate or professional degree. Unlike bachelor’s degree attainment, however, Spokane’s growth in these degrees lags the state just slightly.  Combining both components of this indicator 3.6.3, one allows us to see where Spokane has an opportunity to close the gap. Just 30.9% of the population ages twenty-five and over have either a bachelor’s or graduate degree, trailing the U.S. by about a percentage point and the State by about four.  

One possible reason? Spokane’s economic structure differs quite a bit from that of the state, whose averages are largely dominated by the central Puget Sound population. Mark Mattke, CEO of Spokane Area Workforce Development, advises caution against comparing to Washington. “Comparisons to the I-5 corridor and its preponderance of high tech companies will be skewed towards more graduate degrees.” However, he goes on further to note that “as our economy continues to focus investments upon growing life sciences, including two medical schools, IT, and other sectors, we will see an increase in the number of graduate degree holders in our area.”

A place where Spokane County shines lies mid-level degrees. According to indicator 3.6.2, Spokane County has outperformed both state and national benchmarks for the share of the population having a vocational or associates degree. Here, 14.3% of the population report having a two-year degree as their highest level of education, 4.2 percentage points higher than the state and 5.8 percentage points higher than the nation. This group has shown a statistically significant increase of 2.7 percentage points since the start of the measure in 2005. Again, local growth has outpaced the state (0.9 percentage points) and nation (1.1 percentage points). At least two c factors stand out in pushing this number up: the strength of the Community Colleges of Spokane (CCS) and the simple fact that more students are graduating from high school than prior years. 

Indicator 3.3.4 measures the extended high school graduation rate, students earning a diploma in five years or less, for both the county and the state. The most recent data shows that for the 2016-2017 class, 85.7% of the students graduated, up about 5 percentage points in the last 7 years. Another measure, Indicator 3.5.1, shows about 56% of those students continue on to some form of higher education. This share has stayed stable across the entirety of the trend. So while the County continues to graduate more students from high school, even if the share going on to higher education hasn’t increased, the total number continuing their education will continue to rise. Of course, not all will take their post-secondary training, and even for those local students who do, not all will stay in Spokane. 

The other major contributing factor is the strong presence of CCS, comprised of Spokane Community College and Spokane Falls Community College, in the region. Of the nearly 40,000 enrolled in 2017, about 40% were students at CCS. According to Mark Macias, managing director of institutional research at CCS, “on average, around 1,750 students each year successfully transfer to 4-year colleges and universities from SCC and SFCC. Many of these students will complete their degrees in high demand areas but the course of their completions will occur at some point in the future.”  

In addition to obtaining an associate’s degree, CCS offers 120 career and technical programs of study that lead directly to employment. The Workforce Development Council, along with GSI and other community partners, has identified five key industries in the Spokane region: finance and insurance; healthcare; manufacturing; professional, scientific, and technical services; and transportation and warehousing. Meg Lindsay of GSI, refers to these non-degree programs as part of career ladder. Some individuals may obtain certificates in high wage occupations and then work in the field while obtaining further degrees or training to advance their careers. This in part could be responsible for some of the growth in 4-year and graduate degrees within the county. 

There is something to be said about living in Spokane County that draws people to Spokane as well. A healthy portion of those with graduate degrees would be considered “imports”. It’s a hard to measure indicator, but many lawyers, engineers, academics, and certainly up until recently, all our physicians are imported talent t drawn to Spokane because of our regional amenities ranging from our large healthcare sector, low cost of living, or access to the outdoors.  

So as Spokane’s population grows, new graduates decide to take up roots locally, and our workforce transitions into industries looking for talented and educated individuals and people take notice of how enjoyable living in Spokane can be the trends found in indicators 3.6.2 and 3.6.3 should continue to ride.  

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