Northeastern Looks Northwest, Aims to Fill Voids in Tech Job Market

7/3/12Follow @xconomy

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committed for the long haul. But there will be challenges, she says, noting that Northeastern is little known in the region, and it will be charging private graduate school prices for its coursework. Given that Northeastern hasn’t really described the size and scope of programs it plans to offer, it’s too early yet to say whether it can help provide a significant boost in higher education capacity beyond what the state already has with the University of Washington, Washington State University, Seattle University and others. The impact, Marlarkey says, will probably be in specific niches.

“It’s going to be one arrow in the quiver,” Malarkey says. “The UW is going to produce way more degrees than Northeastern throughout the future, but it’s also true that Northeastern can target a few key programs where there are local needs. What are the local needs, and how can we meet them. They aren’t trying to be all things to all people.”

Lazowska has long been critical of state budget cuts to higher education, in part because of the already limited number of slots available to in-state kids who aspire to work at the Amazons, Googles, and Facebooks of the world. By adding Northeastern to the local higher ed mix, the state should get some extra higher-ed capacity that’s needed, he says.

“In this context, ANY high quality addition to our region’s educational offerings is an important positive,” Lazowska said in an e-mail. “Northeastern is a quality university, and these will be quality programs. There is a limit to how many students the University of Washington, Seattle U, and other educational institutions can possibly accommodate. The more the better, as long as students are getting the quality they’re paying for. And that will be the case here.”

Lazowska also notes that Washburn—someone with long and deep roots in the community—is essentially the ideal ambassador to help form partnerships Northeastern will need to make this initiative work in Seattle.

Still, Lazowska notes that Northeastern isn’t going to solve the whole higher-education capacity problem in one fell swoop. Northeastern isn’t going to be offering undergraduate degrees, which Lazowska says is one of the key deficiencies in the state’s higher-ed system. Northeastern is also not creating a research-based science and engineering campus, which can spin off all kinds of new innovations. “It is not a substitute for increased investment in engineering programs at the University of Washington—which educate a large number of students at all degree levels at an affordable price, and contribute directly to the region’s innovation ecosystem. But it is clearly a plus,” Lazowska says.

Washburn, for his part, sought to downplay the idea of Northeastern competing against the incumbents in Washington’s higher ed world. He says he’s gotten a warm reception from the local higher education community, rather than the cold shoulder. “One of the unique aspects of our culture, is how collaborative it is,” Washburn says. “You can bring folks from all over sectors, get input, ideas, and get stuff done.” Importantly, he adds: “I know most of those folks, they are my friends.”

Still, if I know anything from my years in Seattle, people will say lots of nice things about collaboration in public, and then do a lot of things you might call competitive. Malarkey, of the Tech Alliance, says Northeastern could essentially help keep everyone on their toes. And its model of “blended” learning that mixes online coursework with face-to-face instruction, along with a big emphasis on “experiential learning,” could be a big part of the future. “Higher ed is ripe for disruptive innovation, it’s already starting to happen,” Malarkey says.

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