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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Tip of the Hat to WSUV

University has transformed Clark County \u2014 and the lives of its students

The Columbian
Published: May 6, 2015, 5:00pm

Saturday’s graduation ceremony for Washington State University Vancouver will serve as a testament to not only the students’ dedication and fortitude, but to the vision laid out by state leaders a quarter-century ago.

It wasn’t very long ago, after all, that would-be college students in many of the state’s population centers were distressingly underserved. What are now Eastern Washington University, Central Washington University, and Western Washington University all were established as normal schools (teachers’ colleges) between 1882 and 1893 in the relatively isolated locales of Cheney, Ellensburg, and Bellingham. Even Washington State, which began life in 1890 as Washington Agricultural College and School of Science, landed in Pullman — a fine college town, but not exactly a metropolis.

So, although the University of Washington was located in Seattle, the state’s largest population center, high school graduates in Vancouver, Tacoma, and the Tri-Cities had little access to an affordable college education close to home. As The (Tacoma) News Tribune recently wrote editorially: “Traditional college students — young, family-supported, middle-class or wealthier — could pack up and move to one of the existing state universities. But many would-be students with modest incomes, including parents and people tied to their jobs, were shut out of the system.”

Which points out the significance of legislative action that in 1989 paved the way for branch campuses of the University of Washington and Washington State University. Branches in Vancouver, Tacoma, Bothell, Spokane, and the Tri-Cities were born, and today those campuses are nearing adulthood; today, those campuses serve a combined total of more than 15,000 students. In 1990, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16.8 percent of Clark County residents had a bachelor’s degree or higher; by 2010, that number was 26 percent. Not all of that can be attributed to the presence of a four-year college in the county; economic conditions play a large role, specifically the availability of jobs that attract college graduates to the area. But the presence of WSUV has had a transformative impact upon Clark County.

This week, Washington State University Vancouver officials will confer 975 degrees, including 118 master’s degrees and 11 doctorates. That is a far cry from the initial class of 19 graduates, when the school was confined to a building on the Clark College campus. Today, WSUV inhabits a picturesque 351-acre setting in the Salmon Creek area, but a change of scenery has not been the only sign of the school’s growth. In 2006, WSU Vancouver admitted freshmen and sophomores for the first time, expanding to a four-year school that now has an enrollment of more than 3,000 students.

Given its status as the only four-year college in Southwest Washington and the foresight that has been a hallmark of Washington State University Vancouver’s leadership to date, it is conceivable that someday in the distant future the school will challenge the Pullman campus for enrollment and prestige. After all, UCLA once was a satellite of the University of California’s Berkeley campus.

But for now, WSU Vancouver will continue to serve a small but growing and crucial function in Clark County. Data show that the salary gap between those with a college degree and those without is larger than it has ever been, reinforcing the importance of a college education in today’s economy. That fact serves as proof that Southwest Washington’s four-year college has spent a generation transforming lives.