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Northeastern U: The start of a new SLU U-District?

Seattle Dean & CEO Tayloe Washburn with Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun. Credit: Photo: Northeastern University.

For a state that lags far behind the rest of the nation in the production of science and engineering graduates, Northeastern University’s entry into Washington’s higher education marketplace should be welcome news. Some in the field though, worry the Boston-based school’s arrival might give Washingtonians a false sense of security about the future of higher education.

The private research university opened its Seattle satellite campus last month in South Lake Union. The campus occupies a sleek warren of offices nestled in a building it shares with the Institute for Systems Biology. (ISB's president is former University of Washington professor of molecular biotechnology Leroy Hood.) Nearby, Amazon, the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation loom as pillars of Seattle’s growing medical and technological locus.  

Northeastern University President Joseph E. Aoun believes the Seattle campus is helping to reshape higher education in the region. “We spent two years assessing the needs of the Seattle community and met with higher education, civic and business leaders. We want to establish long-term roots and become part of the fabric of this region,” he said during a visit to Seattle last week.

Northeastern is known primarily for its cooperative education program, where students integrate academic studies with six-month periods of professional work experience. Through a hybrid online and face-to-face education model, the school’s new campus will offer 28 masters degrees in an array of fields: bioinformatics, computer science, engineering management and commerce and economic development. It will also offer four doctoral programs in education, law and policy, nursing practice and physical therapy.

Northeastern Seattle Campus CEO and Dean Tayloe Washburn sees the new campus as an opportunity to tap into the state’s growing need for a highly educated workforce. “Our local businesses are technology-based. Northeastern’s targeted students are 28-45 years old and working professionals in all STEM fields. … As a region, we are surprisingly low in graduate programs for these people.”

Washburn, a former Seattle land-use attorney, chairs the Washington Technology Industry Association (WTIA) workforce development task force and served as Gov. Christine Gregoire’s point person for the Boeing 737 retention initiative. “WTIA decided in 2012 that providing the needed workforce required by our tech companies of all types was a top strategic initiative,” said Washburn.  

That conclusion was borne out earlier by a Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board report in 2011, which documented the need for increased production of graduate degrees in fields such as computer science, engineering, health occupations, and life sciences. The report underscored the goal of decreasing the state’s dependence on imported talent and providing greater job opportunities for Washington State residents.

Local leaders weigh in

Many Seattle business leaders share Aoun’s optimism, viewing Northeastern’s arrival as a boon to the Puget Sound region’s economy — especially its surging information technology sector. 

Steve Leahy, former Seattle Chamber president and Washington State Director of America’s Edge is one of them. “There’s more room for graduate programs that focus on high-demand career fields in science and technology,” he said. “We’re trying to grow those clusters and need as many resources as possible to meet industry demand.”

“My feeling is that we are creating a new University District of Downtown,” said Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin. “A number of private colleges are relocating themselves to be proximate to the employers and employees who might use them, and this is a good thing.”

“Local companies need highly-skilled and educated folks. There is a big gap between our region’s workforce needs and available skilled employees,” echoed Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce president Maud Daudon. “Northeastern has a laser focus on that gap. They did their homework and talked to all the stakeholders, and they’ve been warmly received.”

Warm may be the key word there.

Among state education leaders, opinions are more varied. Ed Lazowska, the University of Washington’s Bill & Melinda Gates Chair of Computer Science & Engineering, is positive about the opportunities Northeastern will provide, but sounds a cautionary note. “There’s no doubt about the fact that Washington state is educationally underserved. We rank in the bottom half of the states in science and engineering bachelors degrees relative to our population, and 46th in science and engineering graduate program enrollment. So any additional high-quality education opportunities, such as those that Northeastern will provide are welcome and needed.” 

“I do worry that citizens and policymakers will mistakenly believe that Northeastern is a Santa Claus that will solve our educational capacity problems,” he continued. “We need to prepare Washington’s students for Washington jobs. While it’s good for our tech industry that a greater number of Northeastern’s Boston students are likely to seek employment in Seattle, what about our kids?”

That conundrum is not lost on University of Washington Provost Ana Mari Cauce. Though she applauds Northeastern’s presence here in Seattle, she laments the state’s shrinking higher education budget, which keeps Washington’s public universities perennially cash-strapped.

“Applications to the UW are at an all-time high,” she explains, “and this is especially the case in the engineering and tech fields. Northeastern is here not because our ‘product’ isn’t excellent or because the demand for it isn’t incredibly high, but because it’s so high that we can’t meet it.”

Cauce sees Northeastern’s entry into the education marketplace as a big red flag; one that points to the irony of state funding and restrictions around higher-ed. On the one hand, she says, Washington is unwilling or unable to fund the expansion of UW’s tech and engineering programs. On the other, tuition for these programs is capped, preventing the university itself from funding its own growth.   

Still, many, like Washington State University President Elson Floyd don't put that responsibility on Northeastern's shoulders. "They will offer different opportunities at different price points. The more options our learners have, the better off we are as a state. Washington State University and the University of Washington are committed to producing as many graduates in STEM professions as we can. Northeastern as an additional partner is a good thing for Washington state.

A smart business move

There’s no denying that opening a Seattle branch is a smart business move for the Boston-based university. One they’re likely to replicate elsewhere. Since Northeastern opened its first satellite campus in Charlotte, N.C. in the fall of 2011, it has spent $60 million to expand its national footprint.  The university is eyeing future prospects for campuses in Austin, TX, Minnesota and the Silicon Valley.

At the Seattle campus, there are currently forty-two enrolled students, but Washburn expects to see strong growth in that number pretty quickly. “I would not be surprised if in ten years, we approached 1,000 students.”

And tuition is competitive. Graduate-level degrees range from $24,000 through the upper $30,000 and the MBA degree is more than $60,000. Washburn is quick to point out that these costs are for the entire program – not just a year’s tuition.

“In many areas,” he said, “the degree cost for a brick-and-mortar private nonprofit research university is, in fact, less than other excellent programs in our state.”

It’s not clear how many of those students will be local, but at least some will likely be Northeastern undergraduates from Boston. “It will … increase the placement of Northeastern’s Boston undergraduates in co-op and internship positions with Seattle tech companies, and those students will be more likely to take permanent jobs here when they graduate,” Lazowska says.

Aoun and Washburn believe that strong partnerships with local research centers like the Institute for Systems Biology, the University of Washington and Seattle University are a win-win for the region and Northeastern. The Seattle campus plans to work closely with UW President Michael Young and Seattle University President Stephen Sundborg to explore further opportunities for collaboration, Washburn said.

Educational leaders like Cauce agree, pointing out that Northeastern’s presence is healthy for competition in the region. “The UW has no problem with competition. We have extremely strong, nationally-ranked programs in Engineering and Technology at an extremely good price point, even with the recent high increases in tuition that are a result of state cuts.”

“We don’t see them as ‘stealing’ students from us, but rather as serving students we can’t accommodate,” she added. “And besides, competition can be very healthy. Berkeley is stronger because of Stanford’s proximity.”

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