In 1989, before the doors even opened, more than 500 students rushed in applications to the University of Washington's Bothell branch campus...

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In 1989, before the doors even opened, more than 500 students rushed in applications to the University of Washington’s Bothell branch campus.

UW officials weren’t surprised — after all, they said at the time, the pent-up demand was enormous. They predicted that by 2009 enrollment would hit 6,000 at Bothell and 6,000 at a new branch campus in Tacoma. Each branch was slated to one day accommodate 10,000 students — those who needed to stay close to home for work or family reasons.

Nearly two decades later, the reality hasn’t come close. Enrollment at UW Bothell remains at only 1,600, while at UW Tacoma, it’s 2,200. Students walk in with lower grades and test-score averages than their peers at the more competitive UW Seattle campus. So, as lawmakers consider spending nearly $1 billion to open a third branch campus in Everett, big questions remain: Is it needed? Can we afford it?

When the legislative session starts Jan. 14, lawmakers from the north will present a compelling case: Snohomish County is growing fast and is expected to be home to 1 million people by 2025, making it one of the biggest counties in the U.S. without a public four-year college. Little more than one-quarter of the county’s adults age 25 and older have four-year degrees, compared with 45 percent of adults in King County.

But reaction among key leaders at the UW has ranged from outright skepticism to ambivalent acceptance. One Snohomish County lawmaker — risking the wrath of colleagues and constituents — has been raising doubts about the need for the campus.

Meanwhile, enrollment expectations have been quietly lowered. Consultants in 2006 suggested up to 11,000 students in a three-county region would be left without a slot at other universities by 2025 and could benefit from a new campus.

But a November report from the state Office of Financial Management indicated that, even under an aggressive growth scenario, a little more than 5,000 students would attend by 2025. The state office added a “low-growth estimate” that put student numbers as low as 3,100 in 2025.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Christine Gregoire added $1.1 million to her proposed budget to begin classes for nursing and teaching students at a temporary Snohomish County site in the fall. Lawmakers earlier appropriated $4 million to begin planning a campus.

Still under debate is location. In the fall, consultants picked a 32-acre site in downtown Everett. But some lawmakers remain loyal to other proposed sites, including a 369-acre rural plot near Marysville. A UW team has recommended that a campus emphasize science and technology and come complete with high-tech laboratories and student dormitories.

“We’ve had repeated studies that have affirmed not only that the need exists today, but that it will continue to grow in the future,” said Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson.

But state Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, recently pointed out that UW Bothell is just a 30-minute drive from Everett and that existing public university campuses across the state could accommodate an extra 24,000 students.

“So why is it that we are spending millions of taxpayers’ dollars to site, build and fund the operations of a brand-new branch campus when we cannot even fill our existing campuses?” Kristiansen asked in an open letter to constituents and local newspapers.

With the state importing high-tech professionals from across the country and world, no one questions the need for more homegrown science and technology graduates. But when existing schools, even ones in the tech-heavy Puget Sound area, fail to attract or graduate enough of such professionals, many wonder if an Everett campus could do it.

Expensive rollout

UW leaders argue that any new branch campus should be rolled out fully formed to avoid the slow growth that has hampered Bothell and Tacoma. That means offering, from the get-go, a full range of courses and amenities such as student housing.

That would mean an enormous initial investment — up to $803 million in 2007 dollars, according to a recent study. Many assume that amount will rise to more than $1 billion by the time the campus is built.

UW Regents Chairman Stan Barer says a fundamental problem in this state is that high-school students aren’t being adequately prepared for college. He questions whether building a new campus would be the “best and most efficient” way to address that problem.

UW President Mark Emmert, meanwhile, has given the proposal only tepid support.

“There’s a clear need for the state to produce more bachelor’s [degree] recipients in the science and engineering fields, and one really good solution for that is a campus focused on those types of programs,” Emmert said.

“What I’ve said very consistently is that investments in new campuses cannot come at the expense of existing campuses and universities,” he added.

Deb Merle, Gregoire’s higher-education policy adviser, said Emmert made his position clear from the start — “We aren’t going to run around begging for this,” is how she remembers it.

The UW was the only public university willing to consider building another campus, after Western Washington University, Washington State University and Central Washington University all rejected the idea. Some people question whether the UW wanted simply to protect market share by making sure an independent college or polytechnic didn’t move in.

Tacoma vs. Bothell

For Everett leaders, the campus is not just a place for education, it also represents an economic development plan. They look to the Tacoma campus which, despite growing slowly, has become a point of civic pride.

Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma said that before the UW arrived, the Union Station area was a “hole and an embarrassment to the city,” perhaps best known as a place to buy black-tar heroin. The campus changed everything, he said.

“It has really had a profound impact and a positive impact on the renaissance of downtown Tacoma,” said Baarsma, who also sits on the UW Tacoma advisory board. “It’s been far beyond our dreams.”

The site in suburban Bothell, on the other hand, hasn’t flourished in the same way. For example, in the past five years, $18.1 million has been given by alumni and community members to UW Tacoma, compared with $2.2 million given to UW Bothell.

UW Bothell’s growth also has been limited by an agreement with Bothell to hold total enrollment to 3,000 students at Bothell and adjoining Cascadia Community College until the state builds a second highway offramp to the campus — a project that has stalled in the Legislature year after year.

Bothell was picked as a site in the 1980s when a demographic model showed it to be at the nexus of suburbs expanding to the north and east. State lawmakers at the time rejected as too costly a competing plan to build two new campuses — one in Bellevue, the other in Everett.

Dick Morrill, a UW professor emeritus of geography who worked on the demographic study, says, in hindsight, it was probably a mistake not to go with the Bellevue and Everett campus plan. But, he adds, the dearth of state funding and initial decision not to offer freshman and sophomore classes also played heavily into the lackluster performance of both branch campuses.

Morrill believes there are social-equity arguments for a UW presence in Everett, but he questions whether a campus there would spark the kind of downtown transformation Tacoma experienced.

Others see a bright future for Everett. After all, the city has other big development projects in the works.

Everett backers argue that UW Bothell is not serving constituents from the north — one-quarter of Bothell’s students come from Snohomish County, while 58 percent come from King County. Leaders say Snohomish County has a lower college-participation rate than neighboring areas because there is no four-year public college close to home.

And Merle points out that UW Tacoma and Washington State University’s Vancouver branch have increased college-participation rates in those cities by one-third.

One side effect, should the Everett campus move forward, could be a further reduction in the significance of UW Bothell. The UW likely would have one administrator run both campuses and could pare offerings at Bothell to avoid duplication, according to UW leaders.

Kenyon Chan, the UW Bothell chancellor, said that although an Everett campus may mean some consolidation, it also could open up other growth opportunities.

“We are not going to abandon Bothell,” he emphasized.

In the end, the debate may come down to money.

“We clearly need to provide more opportunity for higher education. We do not rank well here at all,” said Helen Sommers, chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. “But there will be lots of questions about it. A billion dollars is a huge amount.”

Seattle Times Snohomish County bureau reporter Lynn Thompson contributed to this story.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Comparison of UW branch campuses
UW Tacoma UW Bothell
Student statistics, fall 2007
Total head count 2,653 1,871
Full-time equivalent enrollment 2,173 1,564
Full-time students 59% 60%
Part-time students 41% 40%
Average age of undergrad 27 28
White students 61% 57%
Minority students 28% 26%
Didn’t indicate race 12% 17%
Female students 62% 58%
Male students 38% 42%
School statistics, fiscal 2006-07
Annual budget $30 million $24 million
Full-time faculty 136 80
Total faculty 191 145
Average class size 22 23
Donations over last 5 years $18.1 million $2.2 million
Notable programs Environmental science; Milgard School of Business Professional nursing; interdisciplinary undergraduate program
Sources: UW Tacoma, UW Bothell