The Wave

A Tidal Wave of Students is Coming in the Next Century. Will the UW and the State Be Prepared?

By Tom Griffin

Every fall an unusual rite takes place within the confines of Husky Stadium. On cue, some of the 74,000 fans rise from their seats for a brief moment, extend their arms while yelling, and then sit back down again. The action is repeated section by section, creating a cascade of arms and bodies that travels around the horseshoe-shaped stadium.

Photo imaging puts a spotlight on "The Wave" in Husky Stadium. Photo by Mary Levin.

This spectacle--born in Husky Stadium in 1981--is called "The Wave." It is, perhaps, the most famous wave born on campus (although a few UW physicists and oceanographers might disagree) and has been copied by fans in stadiums across the world. But there is another wave of bodies out there, one that is not a self-contained, Saturday afternoon rite but rather an unstoppable flood that will shake the foundations of the University of Washington and all of the state's higher education.

This wave is primarily the "echo" of the original, post-World War II baby boom, a tide of 17- to 22-year-olds who expect the same access to college that their moms and dads had.

"They are already here. There is no escape," declares UW Geography Professor Richard Morrill. Between 1990 and 2010, the traditional college-age population should rise 35 percent, he says. On top of that mass are a surge of older adults returning to college for new training.

According to the state board that coordinates higher education, the state of Washington must prepare for a wave larger than the capacity of Husky Stadium--a flood of 84,100 new full-time students by the year 2010. Making sure there is enough room for these students would put the state in the 90th percentile nationally in providing opportunities for college. (Washington is now just about in the middle).

Even if that goal is too high, the state will still feel tremendous pressure just to tread water. Take away the north and south upper levels of Husky Stadium and you still have about 58,000 fans. That's about the number of new spaces we'll need by 2010 to offer the same amount of access we do today. It's the equivalent of creating another UW and another WSU.

"It's the most pressing and politically hot higher education issue in the state," says UW President Richard L. McCormick. "The UW has to be a partner with other institutions in addressing this issue. We want to be part of the solution."

If nothing is done, many alumni who expect their children to go to the UW could find the door slammed shut. The pressures are already much higher to get in than they were in the '50s, '60s and '70s--more than 12,000 applied last year for a freshman class of 3,700.

Currently a resident high school senior with about 1,000 combined SAT score and a 3.5 grade point average (GPA) is admissible, says UW Admissions Director W.W. "Tim" Washburn. If nothing is done to increase access, in just 10 years that same student with the same SAT score would have to have a 3.75 GPA to get in. (For current advice on entering the UW, see How to Get Into the UW.)

Under this scenario, "The UW would become more elitist, perhaps less diverse, and certainly more distant from the aspirations of the great majority of the citizens of the state," says President McCormick.

"I would not want us to be that exclusive. This is not Harvard or Stanford; this is a public university. We have to remain connected to the people of the state of Washington," he adds.

But many state citizens are unaware of the coming wave, according to a poll taken last summer for the state Higher Education Coordinating (HEC) Board. About 90 percent believed their children would be able to enroll in state universities and colleges in the future. Pollster Stuart Elway said that perception is "pretty far out of whack." Currently there is room for only about half of all high school seniors. If nothing is done, by the year 2010 there will only be room for one-third of that year's high school graduates.

Leaders at public universities, community colleges and private universities are trying to educate citizens and the Legislature about the coming wave. All have offered to meet part of the increased demand.

Several proposals in the current legislative session would increase enrollments at state institutions. In its supplemental budget request, the UW is asking for 780 more full-time students spread between the Seattle campus and the branches. But these efforts are just the first steps the state must take to contain the coming deluge.

President McCormick has promised the HEC Board and legislators that the Uinversity will carry its "fair share" of the load over the long term. But what exactly that number might be--and how it might change the nature of the University--is still up in the air.

"I used the term to set to rest the mistaken notion that the UW is too aloof, that we're not responsible, that we think we have `more important' things to do," McCormick says.

One way of looking at the UW's load is to extrapolate from today's numbers, says Undergraduate Associate Dean Debra Friedman. Currently, the UW educates 40.2 percent of all undergraduates enrolled in public higher education institutions in the state.

In 14 years, if the UW kept the same rate, it would have to accommodate between 12,000 and 18,000 more full-time students, numbers that beat the growth of the 1950s and '60s.

UW Admissions Director W.W. "Tim" Washburn. Photo by Mary Levin.

UW Admissions Director Washburn looks at the bottom of that range--12,000--and warns that it translates into enrolling at least 800 more full-time students each year until 2010.

"The challenge is to make sure we keep our quality high," McCormick notes. Adds Friedman, "We have to be very careful as the University increases enrollment. We don't want to weaken the University with respect to its strengths in education and research."

Officials can take some comfort looking back at how the UW handled the baby boom of the '60s. Not only did the University expand, but at the same time it hired rising stars for its faculty and built world-class academic departments.

While that growth took place on the Seattle campus, McCormick, Friedman and Washburn all agree that this time, the daytime Seattle program alone could not possibly handle the wave.

"The growth of UW-Bothell and UW-Tacoma will be very important. The expansion of the evening degree program and better use of summer quarter is important, too. I would be surprised if the expansion of the daytime Seattle program could do as much as the other two," McCormick says.

Some modest growth during the day is a possibility. In 1979 the UW had a record enrollment of 37,549; now the head count is about 34,000. "I see nothing insurmountable to returning to the record highs of a decade ago," says McCormick. "But it can't be done tomorrow. There aren't enough courses. Some say there aren't enough courses here now for the students we currently have."

What can grow at the Seattle campus are the evening and summer programs. Currently the UW serves about 1,000 students with 10 undergraduate and six graduate-level programs in the evening. A master's in public administration started last fall and an evening M.B.A. program will start Sept. 30. Since its start in 1990, 388 evening students have already earned their degrees.

"There is considerable potential for growth," notes Vice Provost Richard Lorenzen, who heads the UW's summer quarter, evening degree, distance learning and extension units. "But we are not going to attempt to replicate the entire University of Washington in the evening."

The UW also has one of the largest summer quarter programs in the nation, with more than 15,000 students. More than 80 percent of summer students are continuing their studies from the regular academic year.

"One possibility is an increase over time, perhaps by 20 to 25 percent," Lorenzen says of summer study. "We can increase on the margin, but I just don't know how much."

Work precludes many students from continuing their studies in the summer, Lorenzen notes. In addition, many faculty use the summer to do their research. "It is a particularly intense time for faculty with research grants," he says.

Each UW branch campus could grow to 15,000 full-time students by 2025. Left: An architect's rendering of one UW-Bothell plan shows a promenade ending at a campanile. Drawing by Bill Johnson, courtesy of NBBJ. Right: UW-Tacoma features a plaza with an old power station (upper right) transformed into the library's reading room. Drawing courtesy of UW Capital Projects Office.
While there is uncertainty on how much the Seattle campus can handle, there is little doubt about UW-Tacoma and UW-Bothell. "Built into the branches is the assumption of growth," notes Friedman. In their master plans, each campus has the target of 10,000 to 15,000 full-time students by 2025. Currently each has less than 1,000.

Though in the past the campuses sometimes had difficulty attracting students, both are now at full capacity. "Whatever concerns there used to be in the first five years, that's history now," says UW- Bothell Dean Norman Rose. "How fast can we grow in the future? The answer depends on how much the state is willing to invest."

Today, the branches have junior- and senior-level courses and offer some master's programs. That mission would continue during the coming wave. Both Rose and UW-Tacoma Dean Vicki Carwein are working closely with the state community college system to make the transition as "seamless" as possible.

"Demographic pressures will fill the branches," adds Friedman. "They will grow and change as they accommodate more students."

But building new campuses from scratch takes time and money. "It's not going to be cheap," warns Geography Professor Morrill. "For example, to be successful, they have to have expensive science labs and hire expensive business administration professors."

Another possible solution is using technology--which educators like to label "distance learning." Computers, electronic mail, interactive video, closed-circuit broadcasts, courses on a disk--the possibilities seem endless. Currently the Legislature is considering funding a $34.5 million, high-speed video and data network linking the state's four-year institutions and some community colleges.

"The promise of distance learning is completely unknown," says Friedman, "but it does open up other possibilities for our use of resources on campus." Washburn is less sanguine. "Most studies have shown that distance learning is more expensive than direct learning," he warns. "This is no magic pill."

Vice Provost Lorenzen, who heads a UW task force on distance learning, says that high tech courses require "a lot of hardware and support services that are unusual." Someone has to be there to make sure the computer connections are working, for example, or to set up teleconferencing. "It can help, but I don't think it is the solution in and of itself," he says.

McCormick remains upbeat about the potential. "Distance learning may help students beyond the traditional college age complete a degree. I'm optimistic but not foolhardy. Everyone remembers the promise of instructional TV in the 1950s.

"I do think this will pan out. It is not cheap but it is probably worth the investment anyway. That's the way the world is going to work in the future, with e-mail, interactive video and other technologies we cannot even imagine."

Yet another solution is to redirect the resources that are already in place--what UW officials call "efficiencies." Geography Professor Morrill is outspoken about the need for change. "The University's system of teaching is the same as when I was a student here in the 1950s. It really is a Middle Ages way of teaching--five hours of classes scattered across the week. It's medieval. Despite the rhetoric about distance learning, we need to have better utilization of weekends and evenings. We need to talk about productivity."

Should the UW offer more classes later in the day or on Saturdays? Should students be encouraged to graduate faster by penalizing those who "loiter," thus opening up space for new students knocking on the door? Should faculty and staff be shifted from "low-demand" departments to those in "high demand?"

McCormick says it is too early in the process to answer those questions. Many students have good reasons to take longer than four or five years to graduate, he notes. Often they change their majors, have to work while going to school, or are raising a family.

Reorganizing or even closing departments can cause a huge blow to morale. The Faculty Senate is currently rewriting procedures the UW would use if it had to close degree programs. But closing a department in a time of burgeoning enrollments might not make any sense. "We will find efficiencies," McCormick says. "If we must, we will close the programs that need to be closed. But it is not a panacea."

The burden is not just on the UW's shoulders. Other state institutions will also grow. WSU is asking the Legislature to expand to 24,700 students in Pullman by 2010. The regional universities and community colleges also are willing to take more students. Private universities are willing to expand as well, and have asked the state to provide more financial aid opportunities for students to attend their campuses.

But all this costs money at a time of less government, tax cuts and a spending limit imposed under the 601 Initiative. If the state met the national participation rate by the year 2010--it would cost an additional $480 million, says one HEC Board study.

"The need has been laid out pretty well," says UW University Relations Associate Vice President Sheral Burkey. "There is indeed a demographic bulge coming. The question is, will anybody step up to pay for it?" Currently there is a governor's task force headed by former state Rep. Joe King looking at ways to fund higher education.

The wave is coming, and state government and higher education institutions are beginning to plan for it. But there is another key player in preparing for the wave--parents.

"Parents need to think about what they really want their children to get out of an education. They need to make sure that children who want to go on will have a place in the system--whether that is a community college, a branch campus, the UW in Seattle or another state institution," says Friedman.

"They also need to let their legislators know what are the wants and desires they have for their children," she adds.

Will Washington and the nation be ready for the coming wave? Geography Professor Morrill hesitates. "I'm less confident and part of the reason is demographic. If the elderly feel threatened by economic change, they might be hesitant to support it. They have three times the electoral power they did in the 1950s.

"But the baby boomers have a lot of power, too. I think they will, in fact, be in favor of more higher education opportunities. After all, it's their kids. They appreciate the necessity of a higher education and they'll vote for it."

The man at the top is the most optimistic. McCormick notes America's track record of opening college doors wider and wider. First there was the GI Bill after World War II, offering tremendous new opportunities. Later came the huge expansion to meet the baby boom generation.

"Access to higher education is part of the American dream. No one is opposed to providing opportunity to the next generation. The fundamental principle is shared and deeply held throughout our society," he says. "Together we will find a way to handle it." END

Tom Griffin is the editor of Columns.

For more information on access, the UW and state funding of higher education, contact the UWAA Legislative Support Network via Bonnie Rush [Editor's Note, November 2000: For more information on these issues, contact UW's Office of Government Relations].

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