Going from an associate to a bachelor’s degree can be a logistical puzzle for many community college students. That’s because a good portion of that demographic is rooted in their community, with careers and families that make it difficult to find classes close to home that work with their schedule.
Steven Olswang has spent the last 40-plus years working in higher education and is familiar with the conundrum many degree-seekers face. He was part of the University of Washington’s administration when it opened the Tacoma and Bothell campuses in 1990 and later served as chancellor at both schools when they transitioned from two-year to four-year universities in 2006. Prior to that, the campuses were upper-division only, as a path for community college students to obtain their bachelor’s degrees.
Every year, roughly 65,000 community college students from King, Snohomish, and Pierce counties graduate with their associate degree, and the technology industry in this area creates about 20,000 bachelor-degree-required jobs — most of which are filled by people from out of state, Olswang said.
So, when he was presented with the opportunity to help launch a new technology university on the Eastside to help associate degree holders obtain bachelor’s degrees, he was intrigued.
In January 2017, Olswang got a call from Charles Hou, a member of an Eastside family who wanted to launch Washington Technology University in Bellevue.
New colleges aren’t established from scratch often. So, although Olswang was beginning to sketch out his retirement, he was interested.
Olswang started working with Hou, who emigrated with his family to North Bend eight years ago. Hou’s family has a rich history of education in China, where they own eight universities, and he wanted to continue that legacy in Washington.
In February 2017, Olswang, as president of the university; the Hou family; and several key supporters, including members of the Washington Technology Industry Association, launched Washington Technology University and began pulling together resources and working with the Washington Student Achievement Council to receive degree-granting authorization.
A core staff of 12 was hired, and the curriculum for an information security bachelor’s degree was developed.
In January, the newly minted university occupying one floor of a modest building in downtown Bellevue — which contains satellite classrooms built by Seattle University — saw its first cohort of students, ranging in age from 25 to 63, walk through the glass-pane front door to start a journey toward a bachelor’s degree.
“That was a very special day,” Olswang said with a smile. The university launched information security as its first program because it was recognized by the university’s consulting committee as a huge, and growing, need, Olswang said. Opportunities exist not only at traditional technology companies, but within the retail and medical industries, as well.
The full program is 18 classes, 18 months, and $18,000. Olswang said it’s about the cost of attending a public university. But Washington Technology University is unique on several fronts, he added, including that its cohorts are broken up into three schedules — one in the morning, afternoon, and evening — so students can lock in their class times for the full 18 months.
“If you have family obligations in the afternoon, you can be in the morning group,” Olswang said. “If you work all day, you can do classes from 6 to 9 at night, and we guarantee they can get all their classes in the same cohort. Our classes are focused, so they can have a family life or a job, because we recognize most of our community college students have that issue. That’s why it takes the average student three to three and a half years to finish; it’s because of course availability. We built the model so students can work and go to school and get done quickly.”
Additionally, the classes are scheduled vertically, meaning students take one class at a time and then move on to sequential courses. They’re still taking three classes a quarter, but each class is only one month long. Each class builds upon the last one, which, Olswang thinks, is another attractive facet of the university.
David Teachout, 38, is part of the first class of WTU students and currently runs his own mental health coaching firm, Life Weavings, in Des Moines. He first heard about the new university from a relative. After visiting the school in person, he was sold.
“Information security has a lot to do with human behavior,” Teachout said. “So, it was an easy step in my mind from studying human behavior in a psychology environment to an IT environment.”
Teachout commutes from Kent to Bellevue for the 9 a.m. cohort three days a week, and works the rest of the day at his company. The other two days are online only. The face time with other students and teachers was an important component for Teachout, while obtaining the flexibility to continue working.
“Information security has a lot to do with human behavior, so, it was an easy step in my mind from studying human behavior in a psychology environment to an IT environment.”
“Some of the people that I’ve talked with about attending have all been adults looking for a career change,” he said. “They’re wanting to expand their earning potential, and they’ve heard about the (opportunities in) tech, but they already have jobs and schedules they need to maintain.”
He also was lured in by the potential to increase his salary. In the mental health industry, he said people are lucky to be making $40,000-$45,000 per year. But in technology, he’s likely to make $55,000-$75,000 as a starting wage.
But it wasn’t just the earning potential that hooked him, Teachout added.
“Tech is the future of human interaction,” he said. “And knowing ourselves better can only help with understanding how security flaws can be addressed before they become even bigger problems.”
By this fall, Olswang said, WTU hopes to offer software engineering and technology management bachelor’s programs, both of which currently are being reviewed by the Washington Student Achievement Council.
A more long-term goal is to open a four-year branch campus in North Bend, where the Hou family owns 220 acres. The lot is currently zoned as agricultural, so WTU officials are working with King County to build a campus that would offer agribusiness, environmental science, and technology programs. That’s a few years down the road, though, Olswang said, if it’s approved.
The Bellevue campus, however, will remain a two-year, upper-division program, to continue catering to the vast number of community college students working toward bachelor’s degrees.
Careers, and life in general, have a funny way of taking people down a certain path, and for Olswang, that path, in part, has been filling the gap for community college students.
“The Eastside is (the students’) home,” he said. “They should not have to leave to finish their bachelor’s degree.”