In what was once a decaying corner of downtown Tacoma, purple banners emblazoned with the iconic golden W hang from classic-style lampposts along tree-lined walkways.
On the grand staircase – once a crime-ridden street lined with addicts, prostitutes and pigeons – students socialize and wear Huskies gear from the bookstore. Within and beyond the cleaned-up brick walls of turn-of-the-century warehouses, a modern foundation of higher education is being built one student at a time.
Twenty years ago this week, the University of Washington Tacoma opened its doors.
The institution was a long-term investment in the region’s future – “equal parts higher education, historic preservation and economic revitalization,” as The News Tribune’s Peter Callaghan wrote in September 1997 for the grand opening of the permanent downtown campus.
As 3,250 students start classes this fall, the university’s evolution continues.
UW Tacoma’s effect on historic preservation and urban renewal is visible in the remodeled buildings.
It’s credited as a catalyst of Pacific Avenue’s economic revival that includes a renovated Union Station federal courthouse, the Museum of Glass, Tacoma Art Museum, the Washington State History Museum, Link light rail, boutique storefronts, restaurants and the Greater Tacoma Convention & Trade Center. Annually, the campus has a direct and indirect economic impact of nearly $125 million on Tacoma, according to a study for the UW released in July.
The other promise of the UW campus – improving access to higher education in a region with limited opportunities and a deficit of college degrees – remains a work in progress. The relatively small and young campus has yet to make a statistically significant dent in the percentage of college-educated adults in Pierce County.
But the UWT has provided courses, degrees and certificates for thousands of South Sound residents, many of whom are place-bound, older, working adults who might not have had other options.
Among the first of those students was a thirtysomething stay-at-home mom with four children, hungry to complete her college degree when the UWT opened in 1990.
“I was one of the profiles that the university envisioned,” said Pat McCarthy. “I didn’t care what they were teaching and how they would teach it, but I walked in the doors and had marvelous folks who inspired me. It was a fabulous experience, and I credit UW Tacoma as being one of the significant experiences of my life.”
She graduated in June 1992 and worked for the university as administrator and adviser until 1998. McCarthy, of course, went on to become Pierce County auditor and in 2008 was elected county executive, the first woman to hold that office.
“If you asked any of my peers who graduated in that second year, you would get the same expressions of support,” McCarthy said. “Many of us just loved it and continue to feel very strongly. It was the right place at the right time.”
Pierce County is the second-most populous county in the state, yet before the UWT it lacked a public university presence. An educated work force, as the plan went, would help attract businesses as the county’s population continued to grow.
“The future of our region and our economy depends upon an educated citizenry,” Brian Ebersole, then-House majority leader who pushed for the campus, said when the decision was announced to plant a branch in Pierce County.
During the initial effort to land a university, proponents cited the education gap in Pierce County, which trailed King County, the state and the nation in percentage of people with bachelor’s degrees or higher.
Unfortunately, that gap still exists – and has grown even wider.
Pierce County’s public four-year college participation rate of 1.48 percent ranks 25th of the 39 counties in Washington, according to a state Higher Education Trends & Highlights report in 2009.
U.S. Census Bureau data show Pierce County’s population 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree or higher has grown from 18 percent in 1990 to 23 percent in 2008. In that time span, as Pierce County gained 5 percentage points, King County gained 8 points, Washington state gained 8 points, and the nation gained 7 points.
One state study showed 45 percent of Pierce County’s high school graduates in 2006 enrolled in a public baccalaureate institution or a community or technical college the following year. That ranks 19th among Washington counties. King County’s rate was 55 percent.
“Part of it has to do with the type of employers and the jobs in (Pierce County’s) economy,” said Don Bennett, executive director of the state Higher Education Coordinating Board. “Outside health care, education and military, we don’t have as rich a base of high-tech employers that require the higher-level skills. It’s the chicken or the egg. If you create a more educated population, you make it easier for employers to locate here and hire people. And then those people become the entrepreneurs and create jobs for others.
“That synergy is what you expect. Is 20 years enough time? It’s a start. I think it will play out over time with UW Tacoma.”
If the 46-acre campus hasn’t turned around long-standing economic and demographic trends, it’s certainly made a big difference in the lives and livelihoods of students. A lot of students.
One milestone: In June, the total number of degrees granted at the UWT surpassed 10,000 – equal to about 2 percent of Pierce County’s over-24 population. The university estimates 80 percent of its students from Pierce County remain in the county after graduation. Overall, about half of its graduates are still in the county.
“We lost some of our best and brightest because they had to go away for college,” said Dawn Lucien, who has served 20 years on the UWT Advisory Board and was part of the original push to land the university. “That branch has not only given us 10,000 alumni, but it’s kept a lot of people from going away. Once they leave, they don’t come back.”
Senior Alisi Gucake’s route through college is typical of many UW Tacoma students. The 23-year-old earned an associate degree from Pierce College, then transferred. Transfer students, most of them from Pierce College and Tacoma Community College, make up most of UWT’s enrollment.
Gucake lived on her own, but moved in with her parents in Lakewood to save money while she attended classes – one of the place-bound students the UWT was created to serve.
She works part-time at the campus bookstore, like the 60 percent of UWT students who work at least 15 hours per week.
During a recent shift, she wore a purple sweatshirt labeled “Washington Huskies 1861” – a reference to the founding of the university’s main campus in Seattle. Although she originally applied to attend class in Seattle, she’s come to appreciate the UWT.
Gucake, who was born and raised in Fiji, is majoring in politics, philosophy and economics – PPE – a major that wasn’t offered in Seattle. She said she likes the feeling of UWT’s small campus, and even persuaded a friend to enroll at the UWT instead of Washington State University.
Gucake said she probably would have attended college out of state if the UW Tacoma did not exist. Eighty-five percent of incoming freshmen said they still would have attended a four-year institution somewhere else if not for the UWT.
After graduation in June, Gucake hopes to find a job with the Border Patrol or the Homeland Security Department and continue to live in Pierce County, adding to the area’s diverse and educated work force.
Jeff Harrison is one example of a successful UWT graduate: He has a job.
He transferred to the UWT from Tacoma Community College for the start of his junior year. He worked his way through college as a bartender and rented an apartment above his parents’ garage in Gig Harbor to save money. He still lives there as he pays off student loans.
“I loved my experience here,” Harrison, 26, said on a recent Saturday at the UWT bookstore. He wore a purple Jake Locker football jersey and a backward UW cap. He had returned to campus to buy UW booties for a friend’s baby. “You know everybody on campus. There’s only 30 kids in your classes. You have a personal relationship with all your professors – you’re on a first-name basis.”
In college, a professor helped him land an internship with a City Council campaign in Puyallup. He graduated in June from the Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences program. He focused on political economy and now works for the technical consulting firm Oxford International in Federal Way.
“My degree helped me get that,” he said.
As measures of success, UWT spokesman Mike Wark points to economic contributions and the way the UWT continues to provide access to education to South Sound residents.
“Our steady growth indicates strong demand,” Wark said. “Our students come from the South Sound, and most stay after they graduate. These graduates bring a higher level of education to the regional work force. Local businesses are hiring highly qualified graduates, which makes the South Sound a more desirable place to do business and can help businesses decide to stay or relocate here.”
Wark cited cyber-security firms that hire graduates from the Institute of Technology. Environmental science graduates work in consulting firms and for government agencies. People who majored in education are active in the region’s K-12 schools. Milgard School of Business accountants are popular among regional accounting firms, Wark said. Nurses are employed by local hospitals and clinics.
“Recently, many have been hired by either the Veterans Administration of the Puget Sound or at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in various programs focused on soldiers returning from deployment and their families,” Wark said.
UWT ranked among the top 15 percent of colleges, universities and trade schools that offer opportunities and support for military students, and was named a military-friendly school by the national publication G.I. Jobs.
Michael Allen, a UW Tacoma professor of early American history and folklore, was one of the first five faculty members hired. He measures the university’s effect on education by the number of people he sees working in the community. After 20 years, the UWT has 4,366 alumni living in Pierce County.
“I look for how many of my kids are teachers and have a teaching certificate from UWT, or I go down to the hospital and see how many people I recognize as coming through the nursing program,” Allen said. “That’s what’s happening: Our alums are kind of filtering out into the community. There is a cadre of UWT alums that have found work, thank God, and they’re in the system.”
The concept of a downtown Tacoma campus was born from the desire to improve access to public higher education in the South Sound for those who worked, didn’t have time to commute to Seattle, or weren’t able to relocate to other state schools. The “place-bound” students were likely older than traditional students, had dependent children and needed to attend school at night or on weekends.
“That turned out to be one of the major trends in higher education over the past couple of decades, and it turns out we were at the beginning of that trend serving the place-bound student,” Allen said. “Even with the arrival of the freshmen, we’re still serving that constituency. These students are also financially or personally or professionally place-bound.”
Statistics tell the story: 30 percent of UWT students have children living at home; 48 percent are first-generation college students. The average age is 27 for undergraduates and 37 for graduate students. More than 30 percent are minorities.
“With our focus on access to higher education, we’ve really been reaching out to serve the under-served population – students of color, students with disabilities, veterans,” UWT Chancellor Patricia Spakes said. “We have a high level of diversity in our student population, and that’s a success as well.”
For Pierce County residents, the UW Tacoma is closer than other state schools and it’s cheaper than nearby private universities. Annual tuition at the UW Tacoma is $8,689 for in-state undergraduate students, compared with the University of Puget Sound at $35,440 and Pacific Lutheran University at $29,200.
The UWT says 63 percent of undergrads are from Pierce County.
TOWARD THE FUTURE
This fall, total head count at the UWT is expected to be 3,250. Since 2004, enrollment has increased 55 percent. The campus admitted its first freshman class in 2006, a longtime goal. But the growth is still short of some early and optimistic projections of as many as 10,000 students enrolled by 2010.
“For most of our 20 years, we have grown steadily as fast as the state could fund us, with strong enrollments along they way,” Wark said. “Back in the mid-’90s, we began to see state funding for enrollment growth fall behind the aggressive growth trajectories required to meet those enrollment estimates.”
The continued education gap was noted in the UWT’s strategic plan for 2007-17, which says, “In Pierce County, population has risen by over 30 percent since 1990, but its participation rate in post-secondary education, particularly for four-year baccalaureate and graduate degrees, is well below the state median. These percentages must rise to enable the South Sound to be prepared for the increasingly global pressures of an expanding and interactive economy and complex job market.”
Both Bennett and Spakes see a possible solution in increasing the university’s course offerings. In all, the UW Tacoma offers more than 30 degrees, with more planned.
“In the early years of our development, because we were upper-division only, we didn’t develop math as a degree, we didn’t develop chemistry or physics,” said Spakes, who has led the UWT since 2005 and will resign in June. “For us to really respond to the needs of the South Sound, we need to have a much broader portfolio of academic degrees than we currently have.”
Spakes sees a need to expand offerings to include science degrees, engineering, a four-year nursing degree and pre-med programs. But she said there also is a need to strengthen current programs, many of which are operating with a lean number of faculty members.
As the university continues the transition from a two-year commuter campus and grows into its role as a traditional four-year institution, ambitions are limited by funding realities.
“In 2008, (UW President Mark Emmert) announced to the Higher Education Coordinating Board that UW Tacoma would grow to serve more than 5,000 FTE students by 2017 as part of the UW’s commitment to serve more undergraduate students,” Wark said. “Then the recession hit, and those plans have been shelved for now as the state has stopped funding enrollment growth due to the recession. We continue to grow as rapidly as possible with the limited resources available.”
And the building continues. In the UWT’s master plan, the campus boundaries extend from South 21st to South 17th streets, between Pacific Avenue on the east and Tacoma Avenue on the west. The campus occupies only about one-third of its total footprint, which leaves room for expansion.
In the next five years, the UWT expects to begin building Phase 4 of campus construction, which likely will include a new lab building to support expansion of the curriculum in science, math and engineering, Wark said. Also planned is a business innovation center that would aim to drive job creation within targeted industries.
Last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency gave a $4 million grant to the UWT as seed money for the Puget Sound Institute, a research facility headquartered at the Center for Urban Waters on the Foss Waterway.
“From the collaboration with Urban Waters to the growth of the Institute of Technology to the business program, the UWT’s programs are really relevant to what we’re trying to do in terms of local economic development,” said state Sen. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor, chairman of the Senate Higher Education Committee.