The university center concept is alive and well in Kitsap County and the north Olympic Peninsula, but perhaps not in quite the way envisioned in a 2008 HECB report that recommended two centers be developed in those communities.
Olympic College in Bremerton and Peninsula College in Port Angeles—both two-year institutions—have been collaborating with other public and private institutions to provide new educational programs for local residents who might not have had access otherwise.
But don’t look on either campus for a building that says “university center,” because there isn’t one. “We don’t view a university center as a building per se—it’s a concept,” Olympic College President David Mitchell said at HECB’s regular meeting last month in Bremerton.
A university center can be defined in various ways, but in general, it is a place where one or more higher education institutions offer programs in a satellite arrangement—either through traditional classroom instruction or through various distance learning options. University centers can be located on community college campuses or at off-campus sites in the community. In Greenville, S.C., an empty shopping mall has been converted to a university center.
A number of university centers have been established in Washington. Two examples that have their own buildings on campus are the CWU-Des Moines center at Highline Community College and the University Center of North Puget Sound at Everett Community College.
To address the problem of lower-than-average baccalaureate participation rates, the Legislature in 2008 asked the HECB to develop a program and operating plan for a higher education center in the Kitsap County area. Legislators hoped such a center would expand access to upper-level courses for many Kitsap residents who face prohibitively long commutes to Puget Sound baccalaureate institutions..
A report commissioned by the HECB from the Northwest Education Research Center (NORED) recommended two similar-sized university centers be developed, one at Olympic College and the other at Peninsula College. The board accepted the report in November 2008, and forwarded its recommendations to the Legislature and Governor in conjunction with a higher education system design plan then being developed.
The Legislature authorized the centers and included funding for initial students in the 2009-11 state budget. However, subsequent state budget cuts have curtailed growth expectations envisioned in the NORED report.
In fall 2010, Washington State University established a mechanical engineering program at Olympic College with a class of 15 upper-level students. This occurred after only a year of discussion, approvals and setup work and remains the most significant accomplishment related to the centers. This spring, students from the 2010 class will be the first to receive engineering bachelor’s degrees under the program.
Olympic President Mitchell said the program has responded to a strong need for engineers in Kitsap County, especially by employers such as Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Until now, the shipyard has filled almost all the 100 engineering slots that open there each year with new employees from out of state, Mitchell said.
Students typically graduate from the two-year associate program at Olympic before entering the WSU engineering program, providing a seamless educational experience. A number of place-bound students have indicated they would not have been able to complete engineering degrees without the WSU program at Olympic College.
In 2012, the Legislature allocated another $3.8 million each to WSU and the University of Washington to expand engineering enrollments. This will enable WSU to increase the number of students being served at Olympic to 30 per year, said Bob Olsen, associate dean of the College of Engineering and Architecture in Pullman. In addition, WSU this fall will launch an engineering program based on the “Bremerton model” for 15 students at the North Puget Sound Center in Everett, he said.
Meanwhile, at Peninsula College, a disparate set of upper-level programs offered by several institutions at three Peninsula College facilities in Port Angeles, Port Townsend and Port Hadlock could be seen as a university center, said Brinton Sprague, Peninsula College’s interim president. Most of the programs include some mode of distance learning.
The current programs do not have a heavy emphasis on science and technology, but the establishment of a fledgling composites industry in the region opens the door to exploration of training programs that could serve that industry, Sprague said.