The first freshman class ever enrolled at one of Spokane’s smallest four-year universities will graduate this spring.
When Great Northern University first opened in fall 2018, the school welcomed 54 students to 611 E. Indiana Ave., adjoining Fourth Memorial Church, which owns the school building. The space was previously the Spokane campus for the Chicago-based Moody Bible Institute from 1993 until its closure in 2017.
A number of former Moody Bible Institute employees identified several goals when they started the process to open a new school in its place. One of those was to obtain accreditation, a status granted after a peer review evaluation to determine whether an institution meets acceptable levels of quality, according to the Department of Education.
Three years later, the eight students expected to earn their degrees this spring will receive them from an accredited institution.
Great Northern University has earned accreditation through the Virginia-based Transnational Association of Christian Colleges and Schools (TRACS). Recognized by the United States Department of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as a national institutional accrediting agency, TRACS accredited Great Northern University last month, according to the school.
“I think there was a degree of trust that parents had when they sent their students to us, and students had, in coming here knowing we were unaccredited but pursuing accreditation,” said Wendy Liddell, president of Great Northern University. “I’m grateful for that trust and then also grateful to say, ‘Yep, you trusted us with your students. You trusted that we were walking toward accreditation.’ We finished. We hit that milestone.”
With Great Northern University now nationally accredited, Liddell said the school is also in the process of obtaining regional accreditation through the Northwest Commission of Colleges and Universities.
For Great Northern University, obtaining national accreditation status involved site visits and interviews with a peer review team as well as an in-depth review of the college’s curriculum, programming and regulations in concert with Department of Education standards, said Katie Merrifield, director of communications.
Liddell said university administrators felt prepared for the accreditation process after going through a similar review by the Washington Student Achievement Council to obtain approval in August 2018 to open in the first place.
Tuition, at $15,600 per year, has remained the same since Great Northern University opened for classes in September 2018. The university now offers a psychology major, joining seven other bachelor’s degree programs: biblical and theological studies, communication, leadership studies, youth and family ministry, intercultural studies, linguistics and TESOL, which stands for teaching English to speakers of other languages.
The curriculum is administered by 16 full- and part-time workers (up from 15 in 2018), including 10 faculty. Great Northern University has an eight-member college board.
“As we’ve walked this journey, we’ve seen holes that we didn’t see before, so we’ve had to also then fill in things that we didn’t know or we didn’t know that we needed,” Liddell said. “For us, I’d say the journey has mirrored a lot of startups.”
One of the more recent additions is a residence life program, which is designed to help students “live out our values of scholarship, wisdom and community” and make sure their housing is secure, Liddell said.
The university leases three homes less than a half mile from the school for student housing, which started this fall. Liddell said the houses range from a four-bedroom, one-bathroom home to the largest one, which is 15 bedrooms and six bathrooms.
Approximately one-third of the 36 students enrolled for the current school year are housed in these residences, Liddell said.
“It is not a dorm,” she said. “It would be similar to probably a sorority or a fraternity house. Not as large, but that same sort of (feel) that you’re all in a home together as roommates or housemates.”
With overall numbers similar to where the university started four years ago, student enrollment is below the university’s expectations, Liddell said.
“If I were to serve for the next 20 years, I would love to step away from a school with about 1,500 students,” she said. “Our short-term goal for the next two years is more than 50 students. Tracking beyond that, our next goal is 100 and then we’re looking at how do you go from 100 to 300. Some of that is incremental growth that we would like to see.”
Liddell said Great Northern University administrators have found challenges with enrollment amid the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that a number of students took the fall off for either family or financial reasons. She said the university’s primary recruitment area is centered in the Northwest, extending as far as Montana, Colorado and northern California.
Great Northern University does not have a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for students to attend. A mandate set by Gov. Jay Inslee requires proof of vaccination from only public and private school employees as a condition of their employment or a religious or medical exemption.
In deciding not to require vaccinations, Liddell – who declined to say whether she was vaccinated – said administrators considered a variety of factors, including the size of the student body as well the instructional and housing space available. She said students are encouraged to speak with their doctors or medical professionals to determine what’s best for them.
In explaining the university’s stance, Liddell cited the notion of academic freedom – sometimes known as “the right to be wrong.”
“We value the ability of people to make choices with respect to how they live their life and the ways that they live that out,” Liddell said. “Also in that, philosophically, I value giving students the opportunity to make a choice. To make wise choices, we encourage wise choices. To make choices reflective of sound scholarship, but also to make a choice.
“In taking away choice from individuals, I think, is a detriment to them.”
Great Northern University occupies a 15,294-square-foot space with three floors.
“We do have a fairly unique situation here. In a classroom this size, we might have five students; everyone gets their own table,” Merrifield said. “It’s a little bit different than maybe your bigger universities where you’re packing 50 kids into a room.”
A short-term goal for Great Northern University is to increase enrollment by improving outreach efforts to prospective students, Liddell said.
Long-term objectives include eventually owning the homes and land that the school uses for student housing. Liddell said the school is also aiming to establish an endowment fund.
“It’s really a neat legacy, because we’re coming up on 50 years of there being Christian higher education in this building,” Merrifield said. “I think it’s a cool balance to be part of a legacy, but also, to be doing something brand new. It’s a privilege to be a part of that.”
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