More college options coming to downtown Salem with WOU expansion

The Vick building in downtown Salem will become a new Western Oregon University campus over the next year. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A now-empty building on the edge of downtown Salem will be transformed into a new Western Oregon University campus over the next year.

The Monmouth-based university bought the Vick building at 535 Trade St. S.E. this week for $2.735 million as a satellite campus geared toward working adults.

It will be the first public university campus in Oregon’s capital, offering a new master’s degree in organizational leadership, as well as a bachelor’s degree aimed at students with an associate’s in applied sciences.

“We see this as a niche that’s not being met,” said university President Rex Fuller.

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University administrators hope to tap into a new population of people who need a degree to advance their careers, earn a promotion or become managers.

The number of high school graduates in Oregon is levelling off, said Sue Monahan, the university’s associate provost of program development, “yet there’s this huge need among working adults, people who didn’t go to college right after they graduated from high school.”

Enrollment will start small, but within a few years, college administrators hope to have about 1,000 part-time students based on the Salem campus, according to projections shared with the university’s Board of Trustees.

That would be a significant enrollment boost for the university, which currently has about 5,100 students in Monmouth.

Fuller said university leaders have discussed expanding beyond their Monmouth campus for several years. That included focus groups for adults who have some college education but didn’t complete a degree.

Time was one of the biggest limitations people cited for not re-enrolling in college, he said.

“Even though Monmouth is only about 17 miles away from downtown Salem … it becomes over the time limit,” Fuller said.

Most courses will be either entirely online or hybrid, mixing in-person class time with online coursework. Nearly all in-person sessions would be in the evening or on Saturdays.

“It creates flexibility for people who have working schedules or family responsibilities,” Monahan said.

The university began offering a few courses in Salem this spring at the Willamette Educational Service District offices and is expanding those offerings this year with the first class of about 20 master’s students.

It’s a small campus currently, with about 100 students. The university will have about 10 undergraduate classes this fall and a few additional graduate courses.

The Vick building, seen from the corner of Trade Street and High Street (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Students in Salem pay the same tuition as Monmouth students, but won’t pay the university’s student fees.

The Salem campus will move to the Vick building next fall after about a half million dollars in renovations.

Students can also earn degrees in psychology and criminal justice in Salem, taking general education classes in-person and degree-specific courses online. Those programs were chosen because of their high enrollment in Monmouth and because they’re readily available online, Monahan said.

A general bachelor’s degree in liberal studies would help people who earned a two-year degree in a specific career or technical field reach a four-year degree.

Monahan described it as the inverse of a typical bachelor’s program, where students usually take general education classes before focusing on a major in their final years. In this program, students who already concentrated in a field in community college would take upper-level general courses.

“That allows us to leverage the work what Chemeketa is already doing at the associate’s level and giving people an option to finish out a four-year degree in their local community,” Monahan said.

The master’s in organizational leadership program is aimed at people who need a degree to move up in the workplace, whether in government, business or a nonprofit organization.

It has some overlap with an MBA, but focuses more on big-picture strategy and teamwork in an organization, rather than specific departments like human resources or marketing, Fuller said.

Nearly every other public university in Oregon has a business program, and Oregon State’s includes an opportunity to concentrate in organizational leadership, but WOU would be the only public university offering a degree.

With Willamette University’s well-regarded MBA program, Fuller said the organizational leadership degree made more sense to attract new students.

City leaders are eager to see the campus become part of Salem’s downtown.

“It’s going to be bringing people into our downtown that may not be normal or regular visitors,” said Kristin Retherford, urban development director. “That’s always a good thing for our businesses.”

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.