ON JAN. 25, 2004, A DIMINUTIVE LADY FROM Magnolia quietly entered an office in the temporary state capitol, set down an envelope and started an earthquake. More than a year later, the shockwaves are still reverberating across the state.
Her name was Helen Sommers and her aim was not to shake up the physical symbol of the state of Washington, but its higher education system.
Her plan was elegant but simple. Without letting almost anyone know, she dropped a bill in the code reviser’s office that would create a new, four-year college in the state for the first time in 37 years.
But this was no ordinary plan. The seismic ingredient was her proposal to dissolve the University of Washington, Bothell, and create a four-year comprehensive university in its place—Cascadia State University.
Rep. Helen Sommers, ’69, ’70, was motivated by the lack of public higher education in the north Puget Sound region. (UW Bothell and UW Tacoma are limited to classes for juniors, seniors and graduate students.) “We do not have a four-year comprehensive institution and we need one,” she told the Seattle Times. “Some of us felt very strongly that it’s time to rethink and make some changes.”
Few at the UW knew that this was coming. “It was pandemonium,” recalls UW Bothell Chancellor Warren Buck. “It really scared people.”
UWB students worried they wouldn’t get a UW degree. Faculty started dusting off their resumes. At least one student who had registered for winter quarter classes withdrew and demanded a refund. Next door to Buck’s office, the faculty and staff of Cascadia Community College worried about their future too. The community college is located on the same campus as UW Bothell and had been open for only three years.
Sommers’ bill sent aftershocks across the state, prompting other upper-division campuses to also consider their future. “It’s a wake-up call,” said Rep. Phyllis Gutierrez Kenney, who also sponsored the bill.
Sommers was in the mood to shake things up for two reasons. The state is facing a crisis in access to higher education as the “baby boom echo” graduates from high school. To serve the same percentage of citizens enrolled in public higher education in the beginning of the decade, the state will have to create 33,000 additional slots by 2009—a task equal to building a brand new daytime campus for the University of Washington in Seattle.
As an added twist, many say the state’s higher education system is out of balance. There are 34 community and technical colleges that served 260,488 students in 2002. There are only six institutions that offer bachelor’s degrees, serving 102,868 that same year. Looking at national participation rates, Washington ranks fourth in the number of adults working toward a two-year degree at public institutions. But the state ranks 46th in the nation for the same group working toward a bachelor’s degree at public schools.
“We are not providing enough opportunities for our citizens to earn a bachelor’s degree,” says UW President Mark Emmert, ’75. Citing studies from the state Higher Education Coordinating Board, he said there will be a “very significant shortfall” by 2008. “That’s going to cause a great deal of concern and disruption,” Emmert warns.
Sommers’ plan to turn UWB into a four-year school was one response to the coming crisis. At the same time, community leaders in southwestern Washington were talking about creating a four-year program at WSU Vancouver. Eventually Sommers’ bill evolved into a study of all upper-division campuses in the state—what were once known as “branch” campuses of UW and WSU. And those studies have, in turn, created their own shockwaves.
The debate goes back to 1988 and the bill that launched regional campuses. Lawmakers told the UW to start campuses in Bothell and Tacoma and WSU to start them in Vancouver, the Tri-Cities and Spokane. The doors had to open in the fall of 1990.
Under state law these institutions could only offer classes at the junior, senior and master’s degree levels. They would not compete with community colleges, instead serving students who have interrupted their college education and want to complete it. Also, students who finished their first two years at community colleges could transfer for their last two years of instruction—what officials call the two-plus-two model.
President Emmert is himself a two-plus-two student. The Fife native took almost all of his freshman and sophomore classes at Green River Community College in the early 1970s, transferring to the UW in 1973 to finish his bachelor’s degree in political science.
But some higher education consultants think that the two-plus-two system is inefficient when it comes to generating bachelor’s degrees. One national study followed 1,000 high school graduates who went off to college. Of that group, 530 started at a four-year college and 350 got a degree—a graduation rate of 66 percent. The remaining 370 started at a two-year institution and 69 got a bachelor’s degree—a graduation rate of 19 percent.