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Heritage University is unique in its origins. Both old and new, it is a successor institution to Spokane’s Fort Wright College (formerly Holy Names College), founded in 1907 by the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary. A new institution was born in 1981 through a change in name, location of administrative offices, ownership, and sponsorship. Under the impetus of two Yakama Nation women, leaders from business, religious, and education communities in the Yakima Valley, the institution incorporated as Heritage College so they could acquire the outreach programs which Fort Wright College operated in Omak and Toppenish.
On July 1, 1982, the transition to Heritage College became official. The new institution began offering undergraduate and graduate degrees as a separate private independent non-profit college with its main campus near Toppenish and satellite campuses in Spokane and in Omak. In 1987, the Spokane campus was closed and the students moved to the Toppenish campus. In 2008, Omak courses were consolidated with courses offered in collaboration with Wenatchee Valley College in Wenatchee.
In 1993, through a cooperative agreement with Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake, Washington, upper division courses leading to a Heritage College four-year degree began. A similar program began at Columbia Basin Community College in Pasco in 2003 and at South Seattle Community College in 2006. All of these outreach sites are included in Heritage's accreditation by the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges. Numerous school district sites throughout the State of Washington are also used to deliver Heritage’s Master in Education programs. These sites are also monitored and approved by the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges.
In 2004, Heritage College was designated Heritage University to reflect its substantial master's programs and to more accurately reflect for students from Central and South America the baccalaureate level of education provided at Heritage.
Heritage University was founded as a non-sectarian institution, not affiliated with any church or religious group. However, the University’s educational values have been influenced by the sponsoring religious order of Fort Wright College. The Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (SNJM) were founded in rural Quebec in 1843 to start schools in isolated towns where the poor had no educational opportunities. They emphasized high scholastic standards and enkindling the life of the mind in a personalized learning environment. They envisioned education as the full human development of each student — intellectually, professionally, spiritually, and morally — while creating community and inspiring service to others. Over the following years, they embedded these values in educational ventures pursued around the globe, with great respect for various cultures. This is the educational heritage of today's Heritage University.