Envision a university that can become reality

Local momentum is building to bring a four-year public university presence to underserved Snohomish, Skagit and Island counties. Mobilizing local support, though, is the easy part.

The panel of state lawmakers and other local leaders that will recommend the role and site of a university narrowed things down last week, favoring a comprehensive university with a polytechnic focus – either a brand-new institution or one affiliated with one of the state’s existing universities. It also has decided that it should be located in Snohomish County, either in the Everett/Marysville or Arlington/Stanwood areas.

While the vision is becoming a bit clearer, it still has a daunting hill to climb before it’s realized.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, a member of the local panel and chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee, knows just how difficult it will be to find state dollars to start building a new campus. He wasn’t shy about reminding his fellow panel members of that last week.

A new university, he pointed out, will have to start small and grow. Buildings housing classrooms, labs, offices, libraries and cafeterias won’t be plopped down all at once. There isn’t state support for that, because there isn’t enough money. Existing public universities, community colleges and technical colleges already are competing for limited construction and operating dollars.

If the local panel’s final recommendations are to be taken seriously by lawmakers, they need to be realistic. They’ll also need the support of other state universities, particularly the University of Washington. Opposition by the UW likely would be enough to stop the effort cold.

That argues strongly for recommending an affiliated campus – preferably one run by the UW. Creating a new administrative entity – a new layer of higher-education bureaucracy – makes little sense with money so tight. A UW-affiliated campus would focus primarily on upper-division and graduate students, taking advantage of the good lower-division opportunities that already exist at area community colleges. Growth in those opportunities would be necessary, but could be done cost-effectively.

As for a site, Everett clearly makes the most sense, with its proximity to regional transit and dense housing.

A UW-affiliated polytechnic university in Everett, working with community colleges to serve the needs of more than 10,000 students who will go unserved without it. That’s a vision worth embracing.

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