SEATTLE — Across the street from Amazon headquarters, flanked by a prestigious biology institute on one side and a Filipino-Vietnamese food truck on the other, sitsa storefront in a booming biotech enclave of the city. The space is decked in red and white, with modernist lounge chairs and molecule-shaped sculptures suspended from the ceiling.
Welcome to Northeastern University Seattle. Yes, the once-humble commuter school along Huntington Avenue in Boston has a year-old satellite campus 3,000 miles away in the far Northwest corner of the country. It offers master’s degrees, mostly, that are either partially or entirely online and cater to people looking to get ahead in Seattle’s technology-fueled economy.
Northeastern also has a two-year-old satellite campus in Charlotte, N.C., and more in development — another on the West Coast, one in Canada, and one in Western Europe.
Along with Northeastern’s growing roster of online-only degrees, these faraway outposts represent a massive, and controversial, ambition on the part of the college and its president, Joseph E. Aoun, to serve the workforce, build the Northeastern brand, and position a formerly modest local institution for global competition.
Northeastern’s push is part of a small but growing trend among schools looking to make a bigger name for themselves and bring in new revenue as pressure mounts to contain the increase in undergraduate tuition. While American universities have been sprouting foreign campuses for years, some are now looking to other regions of the United States, despite the competition they face from established local institutions.
Emerson College formally opened a futuristic, $85 million academic and residential building in Hollywood this month. While the Los Angeles site will cater primarily to traditional Emerson students on a semester away, the college also expects to reach out to Angelenos with a partially online master of fine arts program in creative writing and classes for professionals in such areas as entertainment law and social marketing.
Cornell is building a huge, $2 billion technology graduate school on Roosevelt Island in New York City. The University of Pennsylvania Wharton School recently gave the San Francisco campus of its executive MBA program a reboot with a new waterfront site on the Embarcadero. Drexel University, based in Philadelphia, offers degrees in Sacramento, although its struggles to get off the ground there helped dissuade the school from plans for a full-fledged undergraduate campus in California.
Colleges “are driven by the desire to develop other revenue streams in an increasingly competitive higher education market,” said Emerson president Lee Pelton. Although he said Emerson’s main goal with the Los Angeles campus is to become “a global force in arts and education,” the school also feels the imperative to find new funding.
“Our students and families who pay tuition and fees wouldn’t expect anything less than that,” he said.
At many of these universities, such expansions have made students and professors on the traditional campuses uncomfortable, with questions swirling about whether new programs can offer the same quality and whether the satellites are distracting from the needs of the main campus.
At Northeastern, plans to develop the graduate satellite campuses were hatched in 2008, during the financial crisis. They were an extension of Northeastern’s ongoing quest for national cache, as it has carefully plotted a rise in the US News college rankings from 150th in 2002 to 49th today. The school has been expanding its faculty, putting more emphasis on research, and even advertising in national publications like The New Yorker and The Wall Street Journal.
Northeastern leaders pride themselves on the exhaustive research they did on 50 cities before choosing places where they say existing institutions could not meet the demand for career-oriented advanced degrees.
They also looked carefully at what would be good for the university — and decided that teaching undergraduates at the new sites, though potentially lucrative, wasn't a good idea.
According to “the studies we have made of other universities, including universities like Harvard, at all levels, the more executives take your diploma, the value of your brand goes up,” Aoun said. In contrast, he said, adding more undergraduates weakens a school’s image.
Proof that the faraway outposts are helping Northeastern’s brand, officials say, can be found in applications to the regular undergraduate program in Boston, which are up by a third from the Southeast region and by nearly half from the Northwest in the past two years. Boston students have also landed many more co-ops positions — on-the-job placements that are Northeastern’s hallmark — in both Seattle and Charlotte, and some new research partnerships have blossomed.
With 226 students in the Northwest region and 740 in the Southeast, enrollment at the regional campuses is reportedly building more slowly than Northeastern was hoping. But college officials say those students’ tuition ranging from $21,000 to $69,000 per degree, the same they would pay in Boston, more than covers the $3.9 million annual cost of running Seattle and Charlotte. (The true investment, though, is larger, since the satellites also draw on a $60 million university-wide effort to hire new faculty and develop online courses.)
In Seattle, the word “campus” may be a bit grand for 2,500 square feet with three classrooms. But its opening in January 2013 was a bold step into a community where the first question about the endeavor is usually either, “What is Northeastern?” or “Don’t you mean Northwestern?”
The best answer to that challenge, several locals said, was to hire as the local dean Tayloe Washburn, a well-known Seattle lawyer, civic activist, and jovial soul who used to live on a houseboat and plays table tennis with the scientists next door, who, he says with mock pride, call him Big Daddy Pong.
The site is offering about 30 degrees, ranging from bioinformatics to taxation to regulatory affairs. All but a few are entirely online at the moment, but the school hopes to add more “hybrid” programs with on-campus classes as enrollment grows.
Officials say the physical campus is a draw even for online students, many of whom come to network at events like a monthly supper.
Students seeking a master’s in computer science, the only program that has weekly classes on the Seattle campus, find it a cozy place. There’s someone to greet everyone who comes in, a break room with free granola bars and popcorn, and a security guard who will walk them to their cars after dark. Students say they appreciate the contemporary touches, such as a conference table that you can write on with markers, and like studying there so much they’ve asked for the place to be kept open on weekends.
Some of them are part of a pilot program for students who didn’t earn an undergraduate degree in computer science and wouldn’t be considered at most graduate schools. So even those who hadn’t heard of Northeastern before they stumbled on the program, including a recent Stanford graduate and an aerospace engineer in his 40s, were grateful to be there.
They had mostly positive things to say about their on-campus classes, taught by professionals who have day jobs at Google and Amazon. But they were much less pleased with the online component, describing one class that they said had little to offer but an online textbook.
Still, they are looking forward to doing a co-op and feeling good about their job prospects on the West Coast with a Northeastern degree.
“Much of what they do is focused on making sure their students can easily transition into the job world, which was another selling point for me,” said Moses Gonzalez, 23, who earned a biochemistry degree at Stanford. “Even with a name like Stanford on my resume, it was still really hard to find a job.”
Northeastern says the hybrid degrees, designed based on the latest research, offer at least as good an education as old-fashioned degrees, if not better. A new ranking from the Financial Times rated Northeastern’s online MBA the best in the country.
Yet many Northeastern professors still worry privately that the university’s expansion will cheapen its name. Economics professor Barry Bluestone has a different concern: that Northeastern’s expansion, which draws on work from the Boston faculty, along with mounting pressure on professors to focus on their research will distract them from addressing the needs of undergraduates in Boston.
“Most of our undergraduates are thrilled with the education they are getting here, and they should be,” said Bluestone, former dean of the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs. But “some of them feel they are not getting the attention they expected in their courses from senior faculty. I didn’t hear that five years ago, and I’m starting to hear that.”