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

7/3/12Follow @xconomy

Seattle imports high-tech talent, and Boston exports. So it makes sense that one of the big players in Boston’s competitive higher education market, Northeastern University, would see a new niche opening up across the country, where it can help feed a fast-growing high-tech cluster with more brainpower.

Northeastern, a 114-year-old private institution with 20,500 full-time students, has been working for almost two years to build out a network of regional graduate schools in underserved higher education markets, starting with Charlotte, NC and Seattle. No one would call Boston “underserved” by higher education, as it’s the home of Harvard, MIT, Boston University, Boston College, Tufts University and more. But in Seattle, where companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google and others can’t seem to get enough people with advanced degrees in high-tech disciplines, Northeastern has spotted a void it thinks it can fill.

Northeastern publicly declared its interest in Seattle last fall, and has continued to follow through on the idea by hiring prominent local attorney and civic leader Tayloe Washburn to be the CEO of its new Northeastern campus in Seattle. The effort is still very much in its infancy, as Washburn isn’t yet ready to say how many faculty and students will be involved, or where the campus is going to be physically located. But Northeastern has received a license from the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Board to offer 16 different graduate degree programs, and it intends to start classes in January, Washburn says. It also plans to collaborate with local companies through its well-known co-op or “experiential learning” program, in which students find ways to apply their learning at a real-world job.

“The need in our region far exceeds the total capacity of the good existing institutions we have,” Washburn says. “I’ve been worried about that for years in my different civic roles, and this is one way to help meet the capacity.”

Washburn will play a crucial role for Northeastern in this effort, as someone well known in business and political circles from his three decades as an attorney, most recently at Foster Pepper. Over the years, he got involved in a number of business/political issues at the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and working with various groups that sought to keep Boeing from taking more airplane production work out of state.

While Washburn has all the right connections, he’ll certainly need them as the ambassador for Northeastern, which is well known in New England, but is virtually unknown in Seattle. And Washburn is careful not to overpromise about what kind of impact Northeastern can have here, both for job seekers looking to add new skills, and for employers eager to tap into a deeper local labor pool.

“It’s hard to quantify or predict, but the Northeastern investment is going to be a long-term one. It’s not like we have to hit a certain benchmark, and if we don’t, we’ll shut it down. It will be building year by year,” Washburn says. He adds: “I wouldn’t be taking this on unless I had a high level of confidence that two to three years from now, we’ll look back and say it’s a good thing we had this private research institution here in Seattle.”

The story about lack of higher education capacity is a familiar one in Seattle, although it might sound strange to people outside the region. The University of Washington boasts world-class faculty and students in key areas like computer science, but overall enrollment has remained steady around 42,000 students even as the state’s population has grown to about 6.8 million. Washington state is now among the top five states in importing tech workers, and among the bottom five in per capita production of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, says Susannah Malarkey, the executive director of the Technology Alliance. As Ed Lazowska, the Bill & Melinda Gates Chair at the University of Washington’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering, puts it, “Our economy is creating great jobs, and they are going to other people’s kids, because we do not afford our own kids the opportunity to prepare themselves for these jobs.”

Although the Northeastern approach is still very much a work in progress, Washburn did provide some basic outlines of what to expect when I interviewed him downtown a couple weeks ago. Northeastern has zeroed in specifically on degree programs where it sees a local need. Northeastern plans to offer master’s and doctorate programs in things like nursing, computer science, systems biology, cybersecurity, and health informatics. The programs will be largely taught online, with about 70-80 percent of coursework delivered over the Internet, with the remaining 20-30 percent conducted in-person, through what some call a “blended” learning model. Classes will have flexible hours, designed for working professionals who want to add some additional skills to help them advance. Faculty from Northeastern’s main campus in Boston will design and teach the courses, and occasionally fly in for the critical in-person part of the coursework, and their efforts will be supplemented by local adjunct faculty, Washburn says.

Malarkey, a longtime advocate for state support of higher education, says she believes the Northeastern group has done its homework about what’s needed locally, and is 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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