Seattle’s Next Big Thing? College!

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That temblor you sense, emanating out of Austin, Texas, arose when the mighty tectonic plate of preserving status quo in higher education ground against a highly visible effort at reform. That would be the disruptive birth of a fledgling college in Austin, the University of Austin at Texas (UATX)

A difficult birth, since UATX took dead aim at what it described as enforced liberal orthodoxy on many college campuses. Bari Weiss, one of the college founders and a popular substack avatar attacking political correctness and a perceived Woke epidemic, said the new university is about “restoring [colleges and universities] as bastions of open inquiry and civil discourse. But we are done waiting. We are done waiting for the legacy universities to right themselves. And so we are building anew.”

“Done Waiting” might be a slogan for an urgent new generation or a reform-urgent city such as Seattle or Austin.

Critics were quick to dismiss the new kid, saying that its birth announcement was more an appeal to business and conservative backers. Wesleyan President Michael S. Roth scoffed at the University of Austin’s initial course offering, a focus on entrepreneurship and leadership (that again!), and deplored that UATX chose to announce itself by disparaging almost all other universities as mockeries of free thought.

Roth wrote: “The founding salvos of UATX — its single-minded devotion to three principles — may be good marketing for donors, but as a serious critique of American higher education, they miss the mark. It’s true that elite colleges have an issue with groupthink. But the American higher education system is already immense, and once you look past those elite colleges, you’ll see a huge range of philosophies and politics.”

I draw a different lesson, which is that Austin has once again jumped into the lead of entrepreneurship and reform, a reputation that Seattle once had. And I like that Austin, already a college town with the massive University of Texas (enrollment: 52,000) based there, would want to double down on the education sector. “Eds and Meds,” as this economic formula is called, has lots of advantages to a region: stable and well-paid employment, business spinoffs, medical schools that anchor the biomedical sector, spreading Seattle’s brand as a thought-leading town, attracting and holding a creative class to a region, and fueling local arts and humanities.

That’s the lesson that Seattle should take, repositioning this city as more than Techopolis by also becoming a leading college town and maybe also pioneering disruptive change in that well-defended but vulnerable entity, American higher education.

For starters, Seattle already is a strong college town, a good base to build on. Seattle has core attractions for students: nightlife and arts, coffee shops, independent bookstores, nearby outdoor sports, a diverse and booming economy. Right in the city is a major research university. Typically these big universities are located in smaller towns like Boulder or Tucson or Eugene or Bloomington — supposedly to shield young students from big-city temptations. A city like Boston has 85 colleges and 350,000 students, an enviable pacesetter. The flip side is that Seattle has far more tech internships for its college students, another attraction for Seattle.

A major disadvantage for Seattle, as in Boston, is costly rentals and expensive real estate. In turn, that challenge might produce some innovative solutions. One solution is being tried in Vienna, which combines student housing with housing for the poor and homeless. A critical mass of colleges, particularly if thought of as a network, could lead to significant combined benefits while also enriching the college experience and driving down costs. Some examples: inter-library loans (as is done in Boston), repurposing hotels for dorm uses, open enrollment among the colleges, low-cost classes for auditing by Seattle residents and high school students, reduced cost through distance learning, tuition tied to later earnings and paid off interest-free in later years.

Boston is off the charts as a college town. But Seattle could easily aspire to a solid second or third place, drawing more students here, tapping all that brainpower and retaining it with the city’s “stickiness,” and buttressing the creative economy. By my rough count, the Seattle area (not counting Tacoma) has more than 130,000 students. The big ones: UW, 46,000; UW/Bothell, 6,000; Seattle College, 21,000 (at three branches); Seattle U., 7,000; Bellevue College, 13,000; Green River CC, 11,000; Northshore CC, 10,000; Seattle Pacific, 3,600; Shoreline CC, 6,300; Cascadia CC, 2,300; Antioch Seattle, 665; Cornish College for the Arts, 600; plus other small and specialized institutions, some of whom have worldwide students. It adds up to 7 four-year colleges in Seattle city limits and 23 within a 50-mile radius.

Another part of this paradigm shift would be to help existing colleges through synergies and network effects. Critical would be a broader national and international marketing of Seattle as a great town for students (including on-line) and research and upward mobility. The region could make land available (particularly close to rail transit) and advocate for full upgrading to college status for former community colleges. Some outlying colleges might also welcome the chance to start branches in Seattle, showing the flag to donors, alums, and future students.

UATX, being in Texas, might be too politically conservative a model, but a better example of a new school might be Olin Engineering College in the Boston area. Olin is a small engineering school, with no departments, no tenure, cross-registration at Brandeis and Wellesley, and a $460 million endowment from founder Franklin Olin, so all students get half-tuition scholarships. Seattle has quite a few billionaires who might want to help found a reform college. Microsoft and China’s MIT and UW, for example, together created Global Information Exchange on the Eastside, GIX, aimed at American and Chinese students who want to master tech entrepreneurship.

Another Boston innovation is at a land-squeezed Northeastern University, which has now expanded to 10 other campuses, including one in the heart of Seattle’s Amazonia, deploying graduate-level distance learning and lots of tech internships (a key to being hired after college). Northeastern just bought struggling Mills College, which also suggests a possibility of Seattle’s buying and importing some small colleges and reviving them through shared facilities (sports, arts, departments) and the lure of attending college in an exciting city, not the middle of Iowa. A good campus for locating a new college: the KCTS building at Seattle Center, soon to be vacated.

All this raises a larger question, which is whether Seattle’s leaders are keen on devising and adding a new economic strategy or coasting on the previous master formula of technology. One key to a city’s resilience is an ability to recognize when a past paradigm is fading. That last happened here in 1995 when Boeing was plateauing, South Lake Union was beckoning with acres of developable land, and cost-of-living differentials were prompting Silicon Valley firms to look northward. The city jumped right into the Big Tech Age, emulating the company towns of the past (timber and Boeing).

The pandemic, the political woes of technology, the crisis of downtown, and the fading of international outsourcing and trade — these factors may have produced another inflection point for the Seattle brand. The tech boom may have reached maturity, when the distorting economic drawbacks exceed the advantages. Techopolis may have priced itself out of Seattle. If so, I hope our regional leaders examine a new, broadly beneficial and achievable recipe for a New Seattle — a great place to go to college. 

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

6 COMMENTS

  1. Very refreshing to hear forward thinking policy ideas for this region. Government leaders here are stuck in failing planning paradigms (http://www.seattle.gov/opcd/ongoing-initiatives/comprehensive-plan).

    The status quo here revolves around last-century’s economic model for white-collar workers. Times changed, and remote working became the norm for tech and other high-paying employers that used to demand their workforces sit in business district offices (here, in the SF Bay are, and everywhere else in this country). What’s healthy about this opening salvo from D.B. is how it addresses in a thoughtful way now-wasting areas: combining student housing with housing for the poor/homeless in the areas to leverage the now barren light rail station areas, and “the crisis of downtown” with its largely underutilized clusters of office skyscrapers.

    One quibble: in 1995 government leaders didn’t try to “jump into the Big Tech age,” and at this point the problem is not that “Techopolis may have priced itself out of Seattle.” What happened in the early 1990’s was that policy makers decided to maximize last-century’s business model of daily commuters streaming into and out of business districts, “just like mid-town Manhattan.” Those office buildings and Seattle home values now are not too pricey, they simply are not needed because Big Tech relies on distributed workforces working remotely, not workforces living within commute distance of Seattle or SF or San Jose or [insert name of metro area here].

  2. Don’t forget Washington State University Everett – the state’s land grant research university and Everett Community College and its emphasis on advanced manufacturing in your list of higher ed institutions and branding the Puget Sound area as a great place to gain knowledge, experience, and undergraduate and graduate degrees.

  3. Thanks David for planting seeds . . . I don’t Seattle’s current political leaders as capable of settling and driving a consistent direction, at least at this time. Seattle’s politics are mirroring the national stage of ideology and performative politics, rather than problem-solving or direction setting. Perhaps building on our strengths as an educational hub can/ will happen, but not because political leadership has long-term vision and staying power. We’re too fractious and foolish — at least for now.

  4. Maybe it would make as much difference as any of these schemes, if the University of Washington were to take a renewed interest in students, possibly at the expense of some of their plans for lucrative public/private business opportunities in medical science.

    Since their neighborhood has already been upzoned and their master plan approved per the latter ambition, some of the logistics of this educational renaissance might already be accounted for.

  5. The cross pollination of a multi-campus city is great for students, faculty, and of course the city. It would be wonderful to see Seattle move even more in that direction, but one big step will be first assuring that students flocking here find the streets safe to walk, that they find a vibrant revived downtown, stores that are open and thriving, more restaurants and cafes popping up and the arts scene booming.

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