Having reached the point that a new school year has dawned, we find it prudent to ponder a recent column from business reporter Cami Joner of The Columbian. In the Aug. 26 paper, Joner postulated that someday — not in the near future, but someday — the students attending the Washington State University branch in Vancouver will outnumber those attending the system's flagship campus in Pullman. Ridiculous? It would seem to be, considering Pullman's 99-year head start and the fact that the main campus has 19,000 students compared with WSUV's 3,000. Yet Joner makes some valid, thoughtful points that speak to the changing nature of higher education and the importance of WSUV to Southwest Washington. Among them:
• Rising tuition is increasingly making college unattainable for a shrinking middle class. More and more students are attending four-year colleges yet living at home, which will enhance WSUV's attractiveness for students from Clark County.
• Two of WSUV's primary research fields are pain management and cancer, which promise to be growth industries for decades to come. When Evergreen Public Schools opens Henrietta Lacks Health and Bioscience High School in the fall of 2013, it will further strengthen Clark County's position as a leader in health-care education.
• Job-placement rates are high for WSUV graduates, and about 75 percent of them remain in Clark County, according to university spokeswoman Brenda Alling. That will be crucial for the development of the area, as a recent study by The Brookings Institution enumerated how job openings requiring a college degree typically outnumber degree holders in metropolitan areas.
All of this will contribute to continued growth for Vancouver's four-year university. As The Columbian wrote in an editorial a year ago: "Higher education plays a crucial role in the vitality and the economic flexibility of an area. The development of young minds, trained in up-to-date techniques and technology, can help renew and invigorate businesses. Rather than suffer from 'brain drain,' in which students leave the area for their education and often never return, Southwest Washington now keeps some of its brightest young workers at home."
Whether that will be enough, over time, for WSUV to surpass the Pullman campus in enrollment is largely beside the point. The real issue is the fact that Washington State University Vancouver is well-positioned for continued growth. What started in 1989 as a branch campus in Bauer Hall at Clark College now inhabits a gorgeous 351-acre facility in the Salmon Creek area, offering 18 bachelor's degrees, 10 master's degrees, one doctoral program, and nearly 40 fields of study.
More important, WSUV reflects the changing nature of higher education in this country. With continuing economic woes and a diminishing middle class, the notion of college being an opportunity for students to receive their first taste of adulthood and find themselves while working toward a degree is being challenged. The extracurricular activities that come along with being on your own, the things that can make college a full-service educational experience, simply are out of reach for an increasing number of Americans. According to Joner's column, a recent survey found that 43 percent of families reported that their college students lived at home.
Yes, college is changing, and as another academic year dawns, WSUV remains well-positioned to benefit from those changes.