TOPPENISH — After experiencing enrollment doubling over the past decade, Heritage University expects the same growth rate over the next 10 years.
For nearly three decades, the school, situated just west of this rural Lower Valley town, has reached out to an underserved population, helping many who are the first in their families to attend college navigate financial-aid options and admission applications to become students.
Today, Heritage has about 1,300 students, satellite campuses in Yakima, Moses Lake, the Tri-Cities and Des Moines (near Seattle), and employs more than 300 — about 175 full-time workers and another 130 part time.
The school’s annual payroll is more than $10 million and the average salary is about $52,000 a year.
“We’ve enjoyed a fairly consistent growth pattern in our students and in our core options,” said the school’s chief financial officer, Rick Gagnier. “And as the school continues to grow, our staff needs will continue to grow at an adequate pace.”
Over the past five years, the school has added 20 faculty members, 15 support staff members and 120 adjunct faculty, much of it in the face of the Great Recession, he said.
While much of the economy struggled, the university flourished, he said.
“A lot of people turned to education,” he said. “We continue to grow and have had some of our very best years over the past five years.”
When the school first began in 1982 as Heritage College, it focused on nontraditional students — those returning to school or who would be the first in their family to go to college. Many of these nontraditional students had children and other ties to the area that made it too difficult to move to go to school.
The school changed from a college to a university in 2004.
Situated amid sprawling hop fields and vineyards on Fort Road, the school has served as a pathway from the fields to professional careers for many.
“A big factor is helping folks get financial aid and into scholarship programs,” said spokeswoman Bonnie Hughes. “It’s also helping people see themselves in college — it’s something new.”
But over the past decade, the school has received more interest from younger people right out of high school.
The school offers certificates, bachelor’s and master’s degrees under its colleges of arts and sciences and education and psychology.
Offering pre-medical school courses has proven a boon for the school, said Hughes.
Future growth in inevitable, she said.
“A college education is a gateway to a better life, and people are realizing that,” she said. “We’re a young school and when you have a young school, you expect that kind of growth.”
But the school’s projected growth over the next decade still falls short of the demand in the Yakima Valley, Gagnier said.
“Heritage could be 10 times the size it is and there still would be a need in this Valley,” he said.