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Pierce College, Higer Education on the Hill

By Carl Vest

The infrastructure for getting higher education in a local setting did not become available to the people living on South Hill until the 1980s.  It was formalized when the South Hill campus of Pierce College was started.  It is well recognized that education has always been a priority for people living on the Hill and this effort was a logical extension of actions previously taken.  Facilities for providing elementary instruction for local children, for example, can be traced to the 1890s.  High school education became available in the 1960s when Rogers High School was built. 

During the 1980s the need for higher education services in eastern Pierce County was confirmed by the success of a temporary educational outreach endeavor started by the then named Fort Steilacoom Community College --- a program known as the Fort Steilacoom Community College Eastern Extension.  By the mid-1980s that effort had some 2,000 students enrolled per quarter.  It was operated and managed from a rented facility on South Hill, situated on the south-east corner of 94th Avenue and 112th Street.  The building is now being used by the Gateway Reality Company.

It was in 1985 that the legislature appropriated money for planning a South Hill center of learning for higher education.  That action resulted in the writing of a master plan for a major campus to be developed over a 15-year period.  In 1986 funds were allocated for the acquisition of land; the purchase of which was completed in 1987. During that same year $5.5 million was approved for construction of the first building on the new property.  A second building would not be built until 2004, the so-called College Center.

Ground breaking for the South Hill campus of Pierce College was on Wednesday, May 31, 1989.  The ceremony was for one building that was to be erected on a 122-acre tract located on 39th Avenue --- in the Puyallup grid system.  The site was next to the Manorwood housing development and beside a manufacturing company known as National Semiconductor, which has since moved.  Construction was started in July, 1989.  It was dedicated in 1990 and named the Gaspard Educational Center, to honor State Senator Marc Gaspard a leading state legislator.

Pierce College has an interesting history.  It was created in 1967 and named the Clover Park Community College.  It opened in an abandoned Albertsons Store in downtown Lakewood and students quickly nicknamed it Albertsons’ U.  In 1970 the designation was changed to Fort Steilacoom Community College, primarily because of the location of its first permanent campus.  In 1986 the label was again changed, this time to Pierce College to reflect the county wide reach that was being achieved by its operations.  Its 50th anniversary was recently recognized by the County Council in a special Proclamation (216-138). 

The South Hill campus is now a flourishing educational site.  No longer do students from the Hill have to travel to other parts of Puget Sound to pursue a quality education.

Carl Vest, PhD, is a founding member and Research Director for the South Hill Historical Society.

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