The Next Destination for Liberal-Arts Education Is … Arizona?

The mayor of Mesa lured five liberal-arts colleges to town as part of a creative strategy to boost local economic activity and to keep smart students in the region.

National Journal
Sommer Mathis
Jan. 29, 2014, 4:30 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a weeklong Amer­ica 360 series on Mesa.

MESA, Ar­iz. — There was a time when Lesly Her­rera, 18, dreamed of go­ing to col­lege out of state. As the first mem­ber of her fam­ily to pur­sue a bach­el­or’s de­gree, she knew she wanted a school that offered small class sizes and per­son­al at­ten­tion, but she also wanted the full col­lege ex­per­i­ence — liv­ing on cam­pus and the op­por­tun­ity to make friends with people from a wide vari­ety of back­grounds. She had her eye on a num­ber of small, private, re­li­gious schools across the coun­try, places like Grace­land Uni­versity in La­moni, Iowa.

“I didn’t ap­ply to ASU,” she says of Tempe-based Ari­zona State Uni­versity, the be­hemoth pub­lic uni­versity just eight miles down the road from her Mesa high school. “It’s just too big.”

In the end, though, Her­rera stayed even closer to home. Last fall, she en­rolled as a psy­cho­logy ma­jor in the very first fresh­man class — a small group of only 70 stu­dents — at Be­ne­dict­ine Uni­versity‘s new branch cam­pus in down­town Mesa. A $10,000 an­nu­al schol­ar­ship through the city’s nas­cent Mesa Edu­cates U ini­ti­at­ive ul­ti­mately sealed the deal.

“My coun­selor at my [high] school kept ask­ing me, ‘Are you really go­ing to want to spend the money to fly home all the time? Are you really go­ing to want to deal with debt?’ “

De­cisions like Her­rera’s are pre­cisely the sort that City of Mesa of­fi­cials dreamed of when, back in 2011, they took the un­usu­al step of mail­ing let­ters to more than 1,000 private col­leges and uni­versit­ies, ask­ing them to con­sider open­ing satel­lite cam­puses here.

The pre­vi­ous year, the city had com­mis­sioned a study to identi­fy the strengths and weak­nesses of the edu­ca­tion­al op­por­tun­it­ies avail­able to Mesa res­id­ents. Com­pared with many of the na­tion’s strug­gling urb­an pub­lic school sys­tems, Mesa’s K-12 of­fer­ings rated pretty well. Mesa Pub­lic Schools is of­ten ranked near the top of lists for high school gradu­ation rates among pub­lic-school dis­tricts in the na­tion’s 50-largest cit­ies. (Des­pite its repu­ta­tion as a mere sub­urb of Phoenix, with a pop­u­la­tion of 453,000, Mesa is ac­tu­ally the 38th-largest city in the United States).

And while Ari­zona has three big, well-re­garded pub­lic uni­versit­ies and is home to the for-profit Uni­versity of Phoenix, the con­sensus was that the state had a real dearth of small, private, non­profit col­leges — es­pe­cially ones fo­cused on adult learners, those with faith-based en­vir­on­ments, and those with aca­dem­ic pro­grams that spe­cial­ize in provid­ing ex­tra guid­ance to first-gen­er­a­tion stu­dents. Mesa may be pro­du­cing a lot of high school gradu­ates, but it also has a re­l­at­ively low rate of bach­el­or’s-de­gree hold­ers.

“We had a lot of kids who left the area be­cause they wer­en’t com­fort­able with that big, pub­lic uni­versity en­vir­on­ment,” says Mesa’s dir­ect­or of eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment, Bill Jabjiniak. “If you talked to the high schools, we real­ized we’re los­ing a lot of good stu­dents to Utah, Cali­for­nia, Col­or­ado. From where I’m sit­ting in eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment, that’s tal­ent; that’s what’s at­tract­ing em­ploy­ers. It’s so im­port­ant to re­tain that.”

Twelve private col­leges ul­ti­mately sent rep­res­ent­at­ives to Mesa to meet with city lead­ers, and five have already opened branch cam­puses. Only a few hun­dred stu­dents en­rolled in the first year, but each school claims to have ag­gress­ive tar­gets for year two.

Be­ne­dict­ine, a Cath­ol­ic uni­versity based in Illinois, has the largest phys­ic­al pres­ence of the group, oc­cupy­ing a 68,000-square-foot former so­cial-ser­vices fa­cil­ity just down Main Street from City Hall. Also down­town are north­east­ern Pennsylvania’s Wilkes Uni­versity and Fulton, Mo.’s West­min­ster Col­lege, which now share the newly dubbed Mesa Cen­ter for High­er Edu­ca­tion, a ren­ov­ated 53,000-square-foot build­ing that used to be a court­house. South­east­ern Pennsylvania’s Al­bright Col­lege and Up­per Iowa Uni­versity each opened their own fa­cil­it­ies out­side of down­town.

That three of the five schools are clustered down­town is no ac­ci­dent. For one, the city placed a top pri­or­ity on choos­ing in­sti­tu­tions will­ing to take over de­funct city prop­erty. There was nev­er an of­fer of dir­ect fin­an­cial as­sist­ance, but ex­ist­ing in­fra­struc­ture and fa­vor­able leases were part of the sell. The oth­er big part of the city’s mo­tiv­a­tion was the hope that col­leges could breathe life back in­to Mesa’s quaint but truly sleepy his­tor­ic down­town. While it doesn’t suf­fer from the same sort of blight com­mon in former in­dus­tri­al cit­ies such as Clev­e­land or Buf­falo, to walk down Mesa’s Main Street in the middle of a week­day is to ex­pect to see a tumble­weed rather than a crowd of ped­es­tri­ans. It’s an at­tract­ive, well-main­tained area that nev­er­the­less could use sev­er­al thou­sand more people liv­ing and work­ing nearby.

“The mis­take people make is, they think that build­ings bring people down­town,” says May­or Scott Smith, uni­ver­sally ac­know­ledged as the brains be­hind the city’s high­er-edu­ca­tion ini­ti­at­ive, who will soon step down to run for gov­ernor. “Like sta­di­ums or arts cen­ters. Well, they do — for three and a half hours. But they don’t change the nature of the place.”

Smith firmly be­lieves that schools like Be­ne­dict­ine and West­min­ster can change the nature of Mesa’s down­town be­cause they can cre­ate activ­ity 24/7. Maybe, giv­en enough time, they can. But his vis­ion of the en­tire down­town area serving as a mini-col­lege town has a long way to go. Des­pite be­ing out­fit­ted with spark­ling new sci­ence labs and chic, mod­u­lar fur­nish­ings, the Mesa Cen­ter for High­er Edu­ca­tion looks and func­tions much more like a com­muter school than any­thing re­sem­bling a full-fledged cam­pus. Be­ne­dict­ine has some­what big­ger as­pir­a­tions, with plans to in­sti­tute a hand­ful of in­tra­mur­al sports pro­grams to com­ple­ment its aca­dem­ic of­fer­ings. But for at least the first few years, the only “on-cam­pus” hous­ing op­tion is a block of rooms in a nearby Mar­ri­ott.

The oth­er up­hill battle these schools face is that while they may be known quant­it­ies in the states in which they’re based, al­most no one in Ari­zona has ever heard of them. Build­ing up brand re­cog­ni­tion in this cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive, heav­ily Mor­mon city is something of­fi­cials at each school ad­mit will take years.

“Even the term ‘lib­er­al,’ ” — as in lib­er­al arts — “is com­plic­ated out here,” says Mi­chael Gun­der­sdorf, the dir­ect­or of op­er­a­tions for Wilkes, which so far is fo­cus­ing on build­ing up an even­ing-based M.B.A. pro­gram.

Tu­ition at each school var­ies, but in gen­er­al, they cost more than an in-state pub­lic uni­versity and less than the elite col­leges. At Be­ne­dict­ine, for ex­ample, tu­ition and fees run $10,400 per semester, al­though nearly every stu­dent en­rolled so far is on a schol­ar­ship of some kind.

For Her­rera, the op­por­tun­ity to take ad­vant­age of a schol­ar­ship avail­able only to Mesa high school stu­dents ul­ti­mately out­weighed her de­sire for a tra­di­tion­al col­lege ex­per­i­ence. She’s not even liv­ing in the Mar­ri­ott with her class­mates, choos­ing in­stead to stay at home for now. But she sees Be­ne­dict­ine as of­fer­ing something her friends who chose to at­tend Ari­zona State just don’t get.

“I ask them, do you get to talk to your pro­fess­ors? Be­cause I do.”

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