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Push for 4-year college revs up
Times Snohomish County Bureau
With the fumes of a proposed NASCAR track dispersing in the wind, Snohomish County politicians are test-driving a new engine of economic development: a four-year college.
Leaders from both major political parties say locating a four-year college in the county is essential to increasing residents' access to higher education and developing an educated work force for the region's emerging high-tech industries.
"There's a significant unmet need for advanced degrees in Everett and Snohomish County," Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson said. "An educated work force will be key to our future growth and economic development."
Snohomish County trails much of the state in the percentage of residents with bachelor's degrees. In 2000, according to the U.S. census, 24 percent of county residents over 25 years old had four-year degrees. By comparison, 40 percent of King County residents and 30 percent of Thurston County residents held degrees. The state average was 27 percent.
Local leaders said the reason is simple: There is no place in the county to earn a four-year degree.
"We have a very large population of students who have to move away from home to get an education," said state Rep. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island.
The task is even harder for older students with family or work commitments, she said.
Haugen said a college would bring better-paying jobs and longer-term economic development than the NASCAR track would have. Plans for the racetrack in the Marysville-Arlington area were dropped late last year.
As local leaders debate whether a traditional college, a commuter school or a polytechnic institution might best meet the region's needs, the University of Washington is extending its Bothell branch campus northward.
UW President Mark Emmert and UW Bothell interim Chancellor Steven Olswang met two weeks ago with Stephanson. Olswang also met with Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon last week to pitch the idea of a "twig" campus at Everett Community College.
Educators and politicians say a "twig" doesn't sound like a firm perch for the county's higher-education needs. And some are annoyed that the UW is circumventing two state studies under way to increase four-year-degree options in the county and to assess potential costs and identify possible sites for a college.
"No one's going to turn their backs on the UW, but they've stepped outside the protocol of planning," said Larry Marrs, the former director of the North Snohomish, Island and Skagit Higher Education Consortium, who spent the past three years trying to get the state's four-year institutions, including the UW, to offer upper-division courses at Everett Station's University Center.
UW officials acknowledge they haven't attracted many Snohomish County residents to Bothell. Just 27 percent of Bothell's 1,300 students are from the county. Olswang said the failure to enroll more county students is what's prompting the branch campus to bring upper-division UW courses to Everett. "We know there's an unmet need," Olswang said.
And he is unapologetic about the UW moving ahead of the planning directed by the Legislature and the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees college enrollment and expansion.
"We are the UW," he said. "The studies will decide the best answers, but in the interim, why should students wait?"
This past legislative session, lawmakers appropriated $500,000 for a study of the higher-education need in Snohomish, Skagit and Island counties, and called for a 13-member advisory committee made up of politicians and business and education leaders to consider establishing a college, expanding community colleges or co-locating a college and a community college.
An interim report is due to the Legislature in January and a final report in December 2006. A second study will determine if University Center, reorganized under the auspices of Everett Community College, can also offer upper-division courses from state universities.
County Councilman John Koster, R-Arlington, said that even if the UW increases its course offerings and the community colleges begin to offer four-year degrees, more will need to be done to meet meet the higher-education needs of a growing county.
"We need a four-year school in this county," he said. "If you look at what other countries are doing to educate their citizenry, we're falling behind. We've got to make the investment in the future."
Lynn Thompson: 425-745-7807 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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