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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

WSU branches blossom

For more than a century, when people have thought of Washington State, they’ve thought of Pullman.

But over the last 15 years, WSU has been planting its flag all over the state – in Spokane, in the Tri-Cities, in Vancouver. Across the state line, the University of Idaho has done the same thing, offering courses in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Falls, Boise and Twin Falls.

Enrollments on those campuses have typically boomed, especially in areas like Spokane and Coeur d’Alene. Administrators foresee continued growth at regional campuses – even as traditional enrollments are expected to stay relatively flat – because they draw so heavily on older students.

“The theme we’re working on at WSU this year is, the university is not a place,” said V. Lane Rawlins, WSU president. “Location is no longer the most important thing. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a location, it means every place is your location.”

All that branching out is part of a national trend in higher education, from Indiana to Arizona, as single-campus universities have grown into statewide systems. The change has been driven by a high demand for education and work force training and a deep desire on the part of community leaders to host educational services as an economic development draw and quality-of-life perk.

“Every state is doing it in some way,” said Brian Pitcher, chancellor of WSU-Spokane. “Higher education is no longer discretionary. It started as an experience for the elite, and then it was an avenue to the middle class, and now it’s a requirement for any good job.”

The de-emphasis on the central campus has taken several forms. Rawlins changed his job duties this year to focus more heavily on the statewide system, along with fundraising and lobbying. And faculty members – some concerned about the resources going to branch operations – took notice during the last legislative session when money for new buildings was dispersed, said Kenneth Struckmeyer, the chairman of WSU’s Faculty Senate. “Everybody got a building except Pullman,” he said.

Statewide growth

WSU’s growth in Spokane has been most noticeable to Inland Northwest residents. The Riverpoint campus – which includes shared facilities and governance between WSU and Eastern – opened in 1989 and its enrollments have doubled three times since. The equivalent of 1,272 full-time WSU students enrolled in Spokane this spring.

WSU-Spokane will open a new classroom building in the fall, and expects to begin building a new nursing building about the same time. The nursing center is scheduled to open in 2008.

A similar growth has played out statewide, including on the University of Washington’s campuses in Bothell and Tacoma. Overall, branch enrollments in Washington state have increased from 1,009 to 6,177 since 1990. WSU’s campuses in Spokane and Vancouver can grant degrees on their own, and a proposal to do the same for the Tri-Cities campus is moving through the Legislature.

The growth of regional campuses has not been so steep at the UI, and the school’s ambitious plans to open a large campus in Boise had to be cut way back after the project ran into financial trouble. But in fast-growing Coeur d’Alene, the UI’s enrollments have grown dramatically, though the numbers are relatively small at 241 students.

UI President Tim White says that enrollments in Coeur d’Alene could easily reach into the thousands in the near future if the school can offer enough programs for the demand. He said the “banana-shaped” corridor running from Spokane to Coeur d’Alene and up to Sandpoint will be a key region for growth in higher education.

“We’re going to take a leadership role in helping meet that need,” he said.

Schools are expanding and networking in other ways as well, as states look to drive up the number of bachelor’s degrees they produce.

EWU is offering a bachelor’s degree program through Bellevue Community College. And community colleges have long provided services in outlying regions. North Idaho College opened a branch in Sandpoint six years ago, a branch in Kellogg a year ago, and is now looking to open one in Bonners Ferry.

NIC spokesman Kent Propst said the expansion isn’t the result of an imperial impulse.

“They asked us,” he said. “They want us up there. They know what an economic development tool it is to have this in their communities.”

A good match

When administrators consider what programs to offer at a regional campus, they look for ways to match up with the community in question.

Spokane offers a lot of opportunities for hands-on applications in the health sciences, for example, but does not have a lot of demand for four-year undergraduate programs, given the opportunities at EWU, Gonzaga, Whitworth and the community colleges. So the programs here are considered complementary with those in Pullman – in the health sciences, students start in Pullman and finish in Spokane, for example.

The dynamic is much different in Vancouver, across the state. There aren’t other colleges there, so WSU-Vancouver is developing a focus on traditional undergraduate education.

In Idaho, there is an emphasis on science and engineering at the UI’s Idaho Falls campus, which is near the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory. In Boise, the university’s new water center combines science and research efforts of university, government and private entities. The Coeur d’Alene branch has more of a broad undergraduate focus.

It can be difficult for universities to make programs at regional campuses grow, especially when funding is based on full-time students, as it is in Washington and Idaho. Particularly when campuses are just getting started, building or renting classroom space, and hiring faculty, expansion is difficult, Pitcher said.

And regional campuses can be less efficient, especially in the fledging phase, said Peter Wilson, president of the National Association of Branch Campus Administrators. “You’re not going to get the economies of scale” like freshman classes with 100 students, he said.

White said branch operations are an investment for states that pay off over the long run – he acknowledged that they are “loss leaders” in the short run. But he noted that opening a branch of the UI is a less expensive proposition than starting a whole new school in areas where there is a demand for education programs.

Still, though growth may be tough to afford, Wilson said it’s going to keep coming at the regional campuses all around the country – even as the number of high school graduates eases off in the years to come.

“The number of non-traditional students going to college is going to increase,” he said. “It’s going to grow.”

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