Opinion

Four-year college: a high tech answer to a fiscal challenge?

The debate regarding the siting of a four-year college in Snohomish County has focused on the question of location, with two sites up for selection, Everett and Marysville. However, the current State fiscal crisis dictates that no “brick and mortar” facility will be funded at any location in the foreseeable future.  State legislators are now contemplating legislation that would approve placement of a four-year institution in Snohomish County, with the site to be determined at a “later date” when the state has money to purchase land and commence with the construction and establishment of the school.

Considering the sheer magnitude of the state’s fiscal shortfall, this “later date” could be very much later indeed. Meanwhile, several more classes of high school graduates will find themselves hard-pressed to find an affordable, accessible, local four-year college. Addressing this situation (at the peril of finding myself crosswise with proponents of both the Everett and the Marysville sites), I would suggest an alternative idea that could quickly provide expanded educational opportunities for Snohomish County high school graduates.

A wide range of quality online degree programs are available now through universities and community colleges, where one can log in from a computer anywhere and take classes. The fully operational University Center at Everett Station offers courses, certificates and degrees in class and online from five Washington state universities and three Northwest community colleges, and is designed to increase the availability of higher education opportunities in the Snohomish, Island and Skagit Counties; with particular emphasis placed on providing opportunities for place-bound residents whose work and family commitments preclude travel to a distant university.

By encouraging online higher education, we could reduce costs for thousands of students and eliminate the travel time created by driving to a particular location to attend live classes.  If needed, testing and requirements for lab work or hands-on training could be serviced by partnering with local high schools and community colleges. By eliminating geographical, physical, and time barriers, we have before us educational access and affordable opportunities those of us over fifty never dreamed possible in our youth.

Before we invest multi-millions to construct a megabuck brick and mortar college we should look for ways to improve, expand and enhance programs (such as the University Centers) here and now in Snohomish County; to provide access to a greater range of online classes designed by our state universities and our local community colleges to meet the academic needs and workforce demands of the Pacific Northwest.

I believe the time is ripe for us to acknowledge a new paradigm, to seriously consider what technology and the free market have accomplished for access to higher education.

A man once observed his wife cut the end off of a perfectly good pot roast before she put it in the pan and into the oven. It appeared obvious to him that the pot roast would easily fit into the pan and he asked his wife why she cut the end off the pot roast. She replied ”that’s the way my mother always did it, but I’m not sure, I’ll call her.” When she queried her mother, she responded similarly “that’s the way your grandmother always did it, I’ll call and ask her”. Upon asking the grandmother why she cut the end off the pot roast before putting it in the pan, the grandmother responded “I don’t know why you do it that way, but I cut the end off because my pan is too small.”

Sometimes we do things the way we do simply because that’s the way we’ve always done them. Instead of burdening our tax-weary citizens with building an incredibly expensive traditional school, let’s “experience the power” of online technology and recognize what every young person with an IPod, cell phone or “blackberry” already knows: An astonishing new world lies at our fingertips, full of opportunities and efficiencies for those who want to learn at the speed of light via the click of a mouse.

There may very well be a time when a “bricks and mortar” campus can and should be constructed in North Snohomish County, but time is of the essence. We cannot afford to wait to meet the education needs of the citizens of north Snohomish, Island and Skagit County. Snohomish County can lead the way and the tens of millions saved could then be invested in the restoration of our crumbling infrastructure.

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