In making his inaugural visit to Washington State University Vancouver this week — along with WSU’s other campuses throughout the state — Kirk Schulz struck an appropriate metaphor.
“It’s like your children. They all have different opportunities and strengths,” said Schulz, the president-elect of WSU.
And while it will take him a while to learn those attributes, the benefits of having a WSU campus in Southwest Washington have been made clear as the campus lurches toward maturity. The Vancouver campus became part of the WSU system through legislative action in 1989, and since then, it has transformed the region.
Previously, students looking for a four-year degree had to leave the area — many of them never to return. The lack of a comprehensive option was limiting to local students and to the local economy, forcing businesses that require employees who have college degrees to look elsewhere. In 1990, according to the Census Bureau, 16.8 percent of Clark County residents had a bachelor’s degree or higher; by the 2010 census, that number was 26 percent.
Not all of that increase can be attributed to WSU Vancouver, but the school deserves some share of the credit. The presence of a four-year university not only produces skilled workers, but it helps attract the kind of companies looking for such workers which, in turn, attracts employees from outside the region. A 2004 study from Claremont Graduate University determined that, “It is clear that even small campuses can play a very strong economic role in their hometown.” According to data from WSU Vancouver, 92 percent of its graduates remain in the area.
With about 3,300 students for the current academic year, WSU Vancouver still counts as small. But the school’s quarter-century of existence has been marked by steady growth, particularly with the enrollment of freshmen and sophomores that began in 2006. Continued growth and development on the Salmon Creek campus will be essential to the cultural and economic future of Southwest Washington. As a report from the Washington Futures Committee noted in 2013: “Reinvesting in higher education is the most powerful way to fuel our state’s economy and continue drawing the best and brightest people to our state.”
All of this is presented as a way to introduce WSU Vancouver to Schulz, who was selected as president two weeks ago and expects to move to Pullman in June. While his focus understandably will on the flagship campus, it will be essential for Schulz to work in concert with the satellite campuses in Vancouver, Tri-Cities, Spokane and Everett. “Each campus is going to have a different style, different needs,” he told a gathering of faculty, staff, students, and community members during his visit.
For WSU Vancouver, those needs include the highlighting of its status as the only four-year school in Southwest Washington; an ambition to eventually develop on-campus housing and evolve beyond life as a commuter school; and a desire to develop mutually beneficial programs with the main campus in Pullman. In addition, the Vancouver campus can use its proximity to the major metro area that is Portland as a selling point.
Then again, WSU Vancouver has many strong selling points and provides many strong assets for Southwest Washington. Returning to Schulz’s analogy of the WSU campuses being like children, we think he’ll find that this one is young but full of potential.