Different tier of freshmen sprouting on UW branches
Seattle Times staff reporter
TACOMA — Taura Black has long dreamed of studying at the University of Washington, so she was devastated to get a rejection letter from the Seattle admissions office last spring.
"It was crazy. I had all my heart and hopes set on the UW," she said. "I didn't know what to do."
So Black, of Bremerton, decided to join the Army. She spoke to a recruiter and was poised to sign the moment she turned 18 in July. But just before her birthday, she received an unexpected gift — a letter from the UW's Tacoma branch telling her she'd been accepted there.
She had never even applied to UW Tacoma, although she had agreed to allow the branch campus to review her application.
"I didn't believe it," she said of her acceptance letter. "I thought, 'The one in Seattle didn't want me, so why do you guys want me? Aren't you the same school? What's going on?' "
Others may be wondering the same thing. A 2005 legislative change allowed the UW's branch campuses in Bothell and Tacoma to accept freshmen for the first time this fall, and the campuses have been scrambling to prepare for the start of classes this week.
But the UW class of 2010 looks vastly different depending on which city you're in.
Take a student's combined SAT score, for example. The average incoming freshman at UW Tacoma scored 1005 out of a possible 1600. But at UW Seattle, the average freshman scored 1199. That puts Tacoma in the 47th percentile, and Seattle in the 78th percentile, according to the College Board, which oversees the tests.
The high-school grade-point average for freshmen entering both UW Bothell and UW Tacoma is hovering just below 3.3, compared with a GPA of nearly 3.7 at UW Seattle.
Perhaps most telling, 64 percent of the freshman students accepted and signed up to start classes at UW Bothell this week were earlier rejected by the Seattle campus — a figure that UW Bothell Chancellor Steven Olswang acknowledged "astonishes me and surprises me." In Tacoma, 38 percent of incoming freshmen were first rejected by UW Seattle.
For many students, the branch campuses appear to be providing backdoor entry to the state's premier public university.
The three UW campuses have separate admissions offices and decide independently whom to accept. Transferring from a branch to the main campus is akin to transferring from another university. But the admissions offices work closely together: Some students applied to two or even all three campuses, at no extra charge. Others, such as Black, were referred from Seattle to the branch campuses when they didn't make the first cut at Seattle.
UW Admissions Director Philip Ballinger said it mainly comes down to a question of space and demand. The Seattle campus is highly sought-after by students from around the state and beyond. Many solid, qualified candidates are turned away from Seattle because there's simply not enough space for them.
"There is no intention whatsoever that we should have a two-tiered system. But on the other hand, we have to recognize that the students served by UW Tacoma and UW Bothell are not going to be identical to those served at UW Seattle," Ballinger said.
The biggest difference is that Seattle offers dorms and the chance for a campus life that the branches can't, he said. Because of that, the branch campuses aren't expected to have the same draw.
"We can't take them all at Seattle, but that doesn't mean we wouldn't take them if there was space," he said. "They are space-denied students."
Ballinger said the branch campuses had only a matter of months to set up the new freshman programs after the legislative change, and he expects the academic gap between Seattle and the branch campuses will narrow over coming years as word of the branches spreads. Simply launching the program and hitting enrollment targets were the primary goals this year, he said.
UW Tacoma Chancellor Patricia Spakes said the freshmen at each campus aren't directly comparable.
"As one student put it, we like to think of it as UW Seattle is Coca-Cola and we are Cherry Coke," she said. "It's a different flavor, but the same educational quality ... The education they receive here will be UW-quality education. And these are UW-quality students."
Olswang said the academic differences at Bothell "reflect broader access and diversity goals that we've sought to accomplish here intentionally."
Admissions officers in California have faced similar challenges. Last year, a new campus, the University of California, Merced, became the 10th campus in the UC system. The campus is expecting a freshman class this year of about 600.
Encarnación Ruiz, the UC Merced admissions director, said the selective UC system accepts only top high-school students, so academic differences among campuses aren't huge. But the UC campuses in Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Diego will always attract the students with the best academic records.
"We don't have a beach," Ruiz joked. "But we have a small-college environment and lots of personal attention. For a public university, that's just not the norm. The kids who were good, but more marginal, can be really successful here. They can't hide at the back."
When the state Legislature in 1989 authorized the UW and Washington State University to open five branch campuses, the idea was to bring baccalaureate education to the doorstep of older, working students in densely populated areas. Upperclassmen began studying at the branch campuses in 1990, mainly attending evening classes.
The branches have grown rapidly, and UW Tacoma this year will have about 2,360 students, most of whom are transfers from local community colleges. There will be about 190 students in the first freshman class.
UW Bothell will have 1,650 students, including 145 in its first freshman class. And UW Seattle expects about 39,000 students, including 5,450 freshmen.
The WSU campus in Vancouver is also enrolling freshmen for the first time, with close to 200 this year.
Business, liberal arts and computer science are proving popular majors at the branch campuses. The branches don't offer the same range of courses in science, health science and pre-medicine as UW Seattle. Freshmen requirements at the UW Seattle comprise traditional subjects, whereas the branch campuses teach classes that combine several subjects.
Spakes said she's been a little surprised by the demographics of the first freshman class. She was expecting a substantial number of students might be working jobs and attending part-time. But it turns out almost all are "classic" freshmen — straight out of high school, attending full-time and expecting total immersion in the college experience.
Spakes said it became clear early on that the campus in downtown Tacoma didn't have the four things freshmen most wanted: a health clinic, a fitness center, housing and common areas to meet and hang out.
"Nothing's designed with 18-year-olds in mind," she said.
So Spakes set about trying to change that. There is now a modest fitness center, and plans for student common areas are in the works. The campus is looking to partner with a health provider.
UW Tacoma has also bought some artists' lofts, which may provide accommodation for some students as current tenants leave. And the campus has teamed with a developer to build a parking garage with apartments on top. Students and staff will get first dibs on the apartments but will be required to pay market rates.
Olswang said Bothell is also creating freshman spaces, has upgraded its food service and has begun offering a student health plan. There are no plans to provide housing, he said, although several developers are building apartments nearby.
The branch campuses are promoting a point of difference from Seattle — that students can expect a more intimate experience.
Both UW Bothell and UW Tacoma are offering freshmen classes with no more than 25 students per instructor, and the same freshmen are kept together through a variety of courses. Part of the idea is to offer an alternative to the big-campus alienation some students feel at UW Seattle. And there's also a financial lure. To help stoke demand, special scholarships of up to $2,000 have been offered to many of the first freshmen at UW Tacoma and UW Bothell.
In-state tuition at all three campuses is a base $5,460 for this academic year. Fees vary by campus but at each bring the total cost to nearly $6,000.
UW Tacoma student Sarah Sanderson, 18, said that for her, the enhanced one-on-one contact with faculty is important, and she doesn't mind missing out on the social aspect of dorm living.
"That's not really why I'm coming to college," she said. "I'm coming to get an education and prepare myself for a future."
Black, the student from Bremerton, said her rejection by UW Seattle can be traced to her sophomore year in high school when she got involved with the wrong crowd and her grades plummeted. She improved again in her junior and senior years, she said.
She was thrilled with the offer from UW Tacoma, which she said changed the course of her life — from joining the Army to chasing her dream of becoming a social worker. And she's not deterred by the long daily commute she plans to start making this week.
She's even hoping to stay in school long enough to earn a Ph.D.
Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company