In 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. However, some in the field 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 January 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 recent visit to Seattle.
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 master’s 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 bachelor’s 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 education. 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, Texas, Minnesota and the Silicon Valley.
At the Seattle campus, there are currently 100 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.” Northeastern is on track to reach 200 by the end of its first year, he said.
And tuition is competitive. Graduate-level degrees range from $24,000 through the upper $30,000 and the M.B.A. 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. The most popular programs are the Doctorate of Education and Master’s of Computer Science.
“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.
Northeastern has doubled its co-op placements compared with last year at this time, with 61 placements in 2012-13. In addition to longtime cooperative employers Amazon and Microsoft, the Seattle campus has added the Allen Institute for Brain Science, an HR-focused position at the Puget Sound Partnership, and a marine biology major working at the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Additionally, Northeastern has received interest from a variety of new employers for the January-June 2014 cycle, ranging from finance to tech firms.
Winning partnerships, collaboration
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.
Northeastern leaders have met with local universities in the past year and are collaborating in workforce development, STEM education for girls and developing its local neuroscience cluster. The Seattle campus has research initiatives under way with the Seattle Children’s Research Institute, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute and Institute for Systems Biology.
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.”