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As WSU Vancouver’s student populations change, campus leaders adapt, think big

Next up: residence halls

By , Columbian staff writer
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9 Photos
Washington State University Vancouver's first residence halls would be located on the south end of campus, just off the winding road that leads visitors from the entrance. The halls, when finished, would be built into the slope facing the parking lot so as not to block panoramic mountain views for nearby homes.
Washington State University Vancouver's first residence halls would be located on the south end of campus, just off the winding road that leads visitors from the entrance. The halls, when finished, would be built into the slope facing the parking lot so as not to block panoramic mountain views for nearby homes. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Years ago, though still just in its adolescence as a small two-year university, Washington State University Vancouver started to think bigger.

How do we grow? How can we create a real sense of community on campus? What services do we need for the next generation?

While the COVID-19 pandemic added a whole new collection of questions, the acceleration of decadelong trends in student demographics are leading WSU Vancouver to consider how it can serve as more of a caretaker for its students — a role more typical of a residential four-year institution.

“Our board of regents is committed to the idea that growth for WSU isn’t just going to happen in Pullman,” said Mel Netzhammer, WSU Vancouver’s chancellor.

That growth is already happening, with plans from a 2018 update to the school’s master plan putting WSU Vancouver along a path toward a life as a totally transformed university.

A first big step is a new Life Sciences Building already under construction with the goal of completion by spring 2024.

Next up: residence halls and facilities to support students living on campus.

Shifting demographics

Netzhammer is making one thing clear: WSU Vancouver’s biggest priority is stabilizing enrollment. Perhaps the key to doing so, he said, is taking note of how the school has managed to attract freshmen students at a more consistent clip than transfer students prior to the pandemic.

Between 2012 and 2017, the number of total applications WSU Vancouver received from potential freshmen more than doubled. And since the onset of the pandemic in 2020, first-year freshmen applied at a greater rate than transfers for the first time in a decade.

At the same time, transfer student applications slipped: the school received 1,231 transfer applications in 2019 and just 890 in 2021. School leaders chalked that change up to the increased economic appeal or need to seek employment as opposed to continuing education.

To keep enrollment from dropping further, WSU Vancouver offered enrollment to 81 percent of freshman applicants in 2020 and 88 percent in 2021, compared with just 62 percent in pre-pandemic levels.

Years ago, as this trend began, the school launched University 104 — a class designed to revamp the advising process for new students. Rather than meet with academic and career advisers once every semester, the program allowed students to meet with advisers on a weekly basis all year in a classroom setting with a group of students with similar academic interests.

More recently, the class has featured conversations about student identity as the school’s incoming student body grew more diverse. The goal was to create a greater sense of community for new, younger students who might otherwise miss out on such an aspect at a commuter school and introducing core values of inclusion and personal reflection.

“It’s a balancing act,” Netzhammer said. “Our student body isn’t monolithic.”

Infrastructure changes

WSU Vancouver officials have long considered how the addition of on-campus housing might change the university. In 2018, the school updated its master plan to allow for residence halls and identify exactly where they might go.

“We have a lot of space to do cool things on our campus. But (the conversation about adding residence halls) really started to gain momentum when we saw that increase in first-year students,” said Jenny Chambers-Taube, the vice chancellor for finance and operations.

The 2018 plan update shows spaces for two potential residence halls on the south end of campus, just along the winding road leading from the school’s entrance on Northeast Salmon Creek Avenue.

To preserve views of Mount Hood for residents of Mount Vista, the community just west of campus, building heights would be limited at 72 feet. Similar to the now-under-construction Life Sciences building on the northeast side of campus, the residence halls would be built into the slope. Given height and slope restrictions, Chambers-Taube said, each unit would support up to 300 students depending on design.

“If you design it with suite-style housing, that accommodates fewer than a traditional dorm-style,” Chambers-Taube said. “Both units wouldn’t be built at the same time, of course. We’d start with just one, see how it goes and, depending on further demand, weigh the construction of a second one.”

A timeline for residence halls is not set. They remain in the “concept” phase, which means development is at least five years in the future.

More than housing

Facilitating life for on-campus living is about more than giving students a place to sleep; it requires a whole new range of services, Chambers-Taube said. The 2018 update includes plans for new recreation fields and a fully dedicated student union just west of the residence halls in what’s now a mostly empty grass field.

“This changes the nature and the culture of our community. We’re going to need to support our residents 24/7,” Chambers-Taube said. “You’ll need more dining options, more safety needs, more recreation and options for students outside of academics, longer hours of operations of libraries, student centers and so on.”

The new student union would feature dining options and meeting spaces for students; in turn, the existing Firstenburg Student Commons would shift to be a more multi-use facility and potentially serve as rentable event space for summer camps or local organizations.

No timeline for these projects has been set. They haven’t even made it to “concept” status at this point.

A state of flux

Even with ideas of expansion on the horizon, Netzhammer cautions that “the tail of COVID-19 is long,” and there are many steps the university will have to take before diving into such ambitious projects.

The hope is that, one day, programs like the University 104 class and advising shifts would help create a new sense of community on campus at a school that might one day house students.

“Using this (advising approach) that we’ve implemented, there’s definitely parallels to what could work in a residence hall,” said Cindy Morical. “But right now, (the University 104 system) is kind of what we have in place of that residence experience. What can we put together as a commuter campus to make it feel like that?”

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Reopening the cafeteria and child care services to pre-pandemic capacities will be the most immediate goals, Netzhammer said. Past that, they will look to continue assessing how to best provide a variety of in-person, online and hybrid class options that best services the current student body.

“These things don’t get solved tomorrow,” he said. “We will be dealing with the implications of COVID for many years to come. It’ll always be a part of our planning. We need to figure out what makes the most sense. How do these plans connect with current students’ priorities?”

The tumultuous series of events leading to today, however, don’t prevent Netzhammer from smiling about what could come next. The future is beginning to look a little less cloudy.

“This will change us,” he said.