“Visionary” is an overused term, but it surely applies to the creation of branch campuses of the University of Washington and Washington State University 25 years ago.
Today those schools aren’t “branches” but colleges in their own right. What the University of California Irvine is to the University of California, the University of Washington Tacoma and the University of Washington Bothell are to the University of Washington. The UW’s mother campus is in Seattle, but her children have come of age.
Today the five grown-up branches — in Tacoma, Bothell, Spokane, Vancouver and the Tri-Cities — enroll more than 15,000 students. The UWT alone enrolls about 4,500 and will have granted more than 17,000 degrees come this June.
To understand the significance of these numbers, you have to go back to the 1980s. It was painfully obvious long before then that Washington’s founders had put most of the state’s colleges in the wrong locales.
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In the 19th century, Pullman, Bellingham, Cheney and Ellensburg looked to take their place among the state’s leading cities. They landed WSU, and Western, Eastern and Central Washington universities.
But over the 20th century, most of the people went elsewhere — to King County, the Tacoma area, Spokane, Vancouver and the Tri-Cities. Some of the state’s largest population centers wound up without affordable public universities.
The Legislature had long underfunded higher education, and Washington offered its citizens less access to four-year degrees than most other states. Within the overall opportunity gap, some communities fared much worse than others. Pierce, Kitsap and South King counties suffered the largest gap between population size and bachelor’s programs.
Traditional college students — young, family-supported, middle-class or wealthier — could pack up and move to one of the existing state universities. But many would-be students with modest incomes, including parents and people tied to their jobs, were shut out of the system.
The 1990 Census found that 17.5 percent of Pierce County residents had four-year degrees — compared to 32.8 percent in King County. With 19.3 percent, Snohomish County didn’t fare much better than Pierce. To an appalling extent, citizens’ chances for higher education and careers were dictated by the counties they lived in.
The Legislature approved the branches in 1989, and the schools admitted their first students the next year. In 1991, the University of Washington Tacoma produced its first graduating class — five students.
The UWT then offered one generic diploma. Today it offers 34 specialized degrees: 24 bachelor’s, nine master’s and one doctorate. The other four onetime branches have also flourished.
Tacoma won an educational jackpot with the UWT. It also got a bonanza of urban redevelopment. Before the UWT moved in, the Union Station District on the south end of downtown was a spooky place haunted by drug dealers, prostitutes and derelict industrial buildings from the turn of the last century.
Yet some of those decrepit structures featured some of the most exquisite brickwork — arches, cornices, corbelling — in the Pacific Northwest. The UWT restored them to their original glory, creating a uniquely inviting, urban-flavored neighborhood of scholars, students, shops and restaurants.
As these new universities have come of age, they’ve opened up new worlds and careers to tens of thousands of Washingtonians. They’re among the greatest recent success stories in American higher education. If today’s lawmakers look back, they’ll see how some of their predecessors became authors of greatness.