Northeastern University of Boston will open up a branch campus in Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood in January.

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When he visited Seattle last week, the president of Northeastern University took pains to explain why the Northwest’s largest city — some 2,500 miles and three times zones away — was a logical site for a private research institution in Boston to open a branch campus.

“Why Seattle?” asked Joseph Aoun. “Because we like the fact that Seattle is a very vibrant urban center. It has industries that are very prominent, industries of the future.”

In January, Northeastern University will open a storefront campus across the street from one of Amazon’s many South Lake Union sites, in the same building as the Institute for Systems Biology. It will offer only graduate-degree programs, taught both online and on-site.

Northeastern’s move — it also has opened a branch campus in Charlotte, N.C. — has created a bit of a buzz among education watchers.

Colleges and universities rarely open branches clear across the country, said Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, an online news source that covers the higher-education industry. The Boston school, a 114-year-old nonprofit university, is well-known for studying its markets closely, Jaschik said.

Branch campuses are very expensive to open and “not easy to pull off — but, knowing Northeastern, they’re very big on studying markets, so they have done a calculation that makes sense,” he said.

Northeastern believes there’s a strong market in Seattle of employees who already have earned bachelor’s or master’s degrees but need more education to further their careers, Aoun said. The university also believes that employers who compete ferociously for a small pool of employees with the right set of skills and degrees will be eager to hire or promote its graduates.

Aoun flew to Seattle last week to give the keynote address to the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s leadership conference and to talk up the new campus.

“We live in a period of knowledge acceleration, and it is generating new fields and forcing us to reconsider established fields,” Aoun said. “No one is here to educate people who are already in the workforce, who are already professionals. We decided to step in and fill the gap.”

Still, there is some overlap with the programs offered by the University of Washington’s Professional and Continuing Education office, an offshoot of the university that offers certificates and bachelor’s and master’s degree programs to working professionals in selected fields.

The UW served more than 3,000 students in its professional-degree programs in 2009-10. The programs have limited enrollment, and they’re constrained from growing by a lack of top-flight faculty, said David Szatmary, vice provost of UW educational outreach.

Jaschik said that during the economic downturn, it has become very difficult for public universities to expand programs — even when there’s more demand than capacity. “That creates an opening for Northeastern,” he said.

Aoun and Tayloe Washburn, the former Chamber of Commerce president and land-use attorney who will be dean of the branch campus, said they don’t believe they’re competing with the UW or other local colleges.

“In many ways, our work is really to complement other institutions,” Aoun said.

The Boston school has made internships and connections to industry a hallmark of its brand and, as a result, it has a high placement rate for its graduates, Aoun said.

Washburn said a typical student might be somebody with a bachelor’s degree in a general field — economics, for example — who works for a Seattle company and wants to earn a master’s in a specialized field to help advance his or her career.

Northeastern is designing its curriculum and programs based on what employers in the area say they need, Aoun said. It met with 250 people in the Seattle area and studied Seattle for 18 months, before committing to build a campus here, he said.

Northeastern ranks a little lower than the UW on the U.S. News & World Report’s rankings of colleges — the UW was 46th this year to Northeastern’s ranking of 56th.

As a private school, its degrees are generally a little more expensive than a public school’s, with master’s degrees costing between $24,000 and $45,000.

Washburn expects the university will have fewer than 100 students when it opens in January and will see a slow acceleration in enrollment — particularly when the computer-science graduate program begins later in the year.

“Twelve to 18 months from now, that is going to attract an awful lot of folks,” he said.

He also expects the school’s doctorate in education, master’s in business administration and master’s in regulatory affairs to be popular.

Washburn said the hybrid model of presenting courses — with some of the work online and some taught in-person — takes advantage of technology to make the courses more flexible for working professionals but still provides many of the advantages of learning at a bricks-and-mortar location.

He said one of his challenges now is educating people in Seattle about the university.

“In Boston, everybody knows Northeastern,” Jaschik said. “They’re banking on marketing, and they have a very strong brand for a certain kind of education.”

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or On Twitter @katherinelong.