By M.L. Dehm HBJ Freelance Writer
Thanks to the new Portal Project created by Central Washington University, students at Everett Community College, Edmonds Community College and other Washington state schools will have more chances to pursue CWU degrees and certificates.
Although CWU already offers baccalaureate programs in Snohomish County, the new Portal Project is intended to reach more students and better serve affiliated institutions.
“We have staff at EvCC within the University Center (of North Puget Sound). Staff will remain there,” said Melanie Palm, director of operations for CWU’s University Centers. “What we’re looking at is expanding some of the programs that we are currently offering at our six locations.”
This may mean creating additional programs or it could include creating hybrid programs, part in-class and part online. Palm cited an English writing specialization program that will launch this fall. It’s an online program now, but CWU will offer it as a hybridized program with some face-to-face instruction.
“At least one face-to-face course per quarter in Lynnwood (EdCC),” Palm said. “Then we’re seeing how we can connect it to the students in Everett (EvCC).”
The hope is that this new hybrid approach will contribute toward the state’s goal of increasing baccalaureate degree production by 27 percent and attract more potential students.
Currently, CWU operates University Centers on community college campuses in Edmonds, Everett, Des Moines, Moses Lake, Steilacoom, Wenatchee and Yakima. Traditionally, these centers have featured a mix of interactive television and face-to-face instruction. Students still had to come to classes at the centers, which were expensive to equip.
But in recent years, face-to-face enrollment at the CWU University Centers began to decline with a correlating uptick in enrollment in the university’s online programs. CWU says it now offers more online degree programs than any other public university in Washington. Figures show enrollment in these programs rose 300 percent over an 18-month period.
With these figures in mind, the university decided to look for reasons for the enrollment changes. CWU associate provost Tracy Pellett said he thought many students were already living much of their lives in a virtual world and that online classes are more comfortable and convenient for them.
Many students want to complete their degrees at home for financial reasons that include work or family obligations.
“Not everyone can just pack up and move to a residential campus, so we’re looking for ways that we can reach out to where those students are,” Palm said.
Keeping non-traditional students in mind, CWU administrators and faculty began looking for ways to update the University Center concept. Last fall, they went on a three-day fact-finding mission at community colleges around the state. CWU representatives met with staff, faculty and students and received input from community representatives to get ideas about the sorts of courses that are most needed by businesses and employers in those communities.
The result was the Portal Project.
The ability to remain local means that the Portal Project can help to offset costs for students when tuition prices rise, Palm said. The portals are also more cost effective for CWU. The high-tech University Centers cost about $250,000 each. While the classrooms will be maintained for face-to-face instruction, the interactive TV can be replaced with an online element that students can access with a smartphone or computer.
Pellet noted that online students also have the added bonus of experiencing a class size of one, regardless of the number of students enrolled in the course. They can learn at a more comfortable pace.
Additional streamlining will be taken in the University Center’s administrative structure. Overhead will be cut by replacing eight University Center site directors with four regional directors. Three of those regional directors will be located in Western Washington.
The community should also experience a benefit from the Portal Project, Palm explained. Students won’t have to leave their communities in order to earn their degrees. They will have more opportunities and employers, in turn, will have more well-trained potential employees to choose from in the local area.
“We’re continuing to look at what the demands are of the community around Everett and the demands of the businesses and how we connect with that and how we can expand our reach,” Palm said.