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Evergreen boosts Thurston County’s economy, even as its enrollment declines

Evergreen’s enrollment is expected to be 3,100 when classes begin on Monday, but the Thurston Economic Development Council shows the campus still has a big impact on Thurston County’s economy.
Evergreen’s enrollment is expected to be 3,100 when classes begin on Monday, but the Thurston Economic Development Council shows the campus still has a big impact on Thurston County’s economy. Olympian file photo

Fall classes begin Monday at The Evergreen State College, which a new study shows is an economic driver for Thurston County.

The study by the Thurston Economic Development Council attaches numbers to the impact Evergreen has on the county’s economy — and the EDC says that impact isn’t likely to change much even though Evergreen’s enrollment is declining.

The EDC study drew from data collected during the 2016-2017 school year. In that report:

  • Evergreen’s total economic contribution to Thurston County was valued at more than $201 million.
  • A total of 1,637 jobs were created.
  • For every $1 invested in the college, $4.68 was returned.
  • $109 million in direct spending in Thurston County is attributed to Evergreen.

Of those 1,637 jobs created, 997 were direct, 247 were indirect (such as Evergreen contracted a third-party to complete a job) and 393 were induced as the next ripple in the economy.

“When you have a public institution and you’re putting taxpayers’ money into it, it’s important for that institution to show the value that it brings back to taxpayers,” said Evergreen spokeswoman Sandra Kaiser said about the economic report. “I think the totality of impact is really what you need to look at when you start to assess the value of taxpayers’ money going into a institution.“

Evergreen estimates about 350 freshmen will be enrolled when classes begin on Monday, Kaiser said. Total enrollment is expected to be about 3,100 students, down about 14 percent from 3,610 last fall, and from 3,787 in 2016-17. The enrollment estimate is comparable to enrollments in the early 1990s.

Enrollment peaked for the college in the 2009-2010 school year with 4,551 students.

Kaiser said the university isn’t worried about the enrollment numbers.

“We’ve had declining enrollment over the last 10 years,” she said. “It’s not a new thing for us, and it really reflects the trend in liberal arts and sciences colleges across the United States. Over time, you see this up and down (with enrollment). It’s part of the normal cycle. It’s not great, but we’ve seen these numbers before in our past. These times come and go.”

The enrollment numbers have gone down more steeply since the 2016-17 year, when unrest on campus over race relations, free speech, and campus management drew the national spotlight. The attention resulted in threats against the school, a campus shutdown, and moving commencement off campus. The issues also led to faculty departures and a spate of lawsuits.

“There’s been turmoil across the country at college campuses at places like Yale, Harvard and Berkeley. We’re certainly in that mix as well,” Kaiser said. “We’re in a time of tumult in our country. But I certainly wouldn’t look at that as the ‘be-all, end-all’ of Evergreen.”

The university’s economic output is able to increase regardless of the decline in enrollment because student spending represents a small portion of the overall impact, according to Thurston EDC research manager Gene Angel, who was in charge of the economic impact report.

“Student spending isn’t really the majority of the pie,” Angel said. “As long as their operations and capital spending — that’s where the meat and potatoes of the economic impact report comes from — are increasing,” the enrollment isn’t significant.

Kaiser said a key to Evergreen’s success is helping potential students understand why they should consider pursuing a degree at the public liberal arts college.

“We want to do a better job of communicating with students about what we have here and how it can benefit them in terms of finishing a degree or starting a degree,” Kaiser said. “And we know we can do better at that.”

A similar economic impact study was done on South Puget Sound Community College in 2016 by Emsi, which specializes in labor market analytics. In that report, the study showed that the total impact of SPSCC was $316.1 million. For every $1 that was invested, $3.10 was returned to taxpayers.

Clarification from Sandra Kaiser: SPSCC total’s economic impact includes alumni earnings of $269.5 million. If Evergreen’s impact was calculated the same way that SPSCC does, including Evergreen alumni earnings of $535 million, the total impact rises to $736.7 million.

Logan Stanley: 360-754-5433, @LSscribe