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
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.”

What We're Following See More »
Trump Calls 50,000 Feds Back to Work
2 hours ago

"The Trump administration on Tuesday said it has called back tens of thousands of federal workers to fulfill key government tasks, including disbursing tax refunds, overseeing flight safety and inspecting the nation’s food and drug supply, as it seeks to blunt the impact of the longest government shutdown in U.S. history. The nearly 50,000 furloughed federal employees are being brought back to work without pay — part of a group of about 800,000 federal workers who are not receiving paychecks during the shutdown."

Pelosi Asks Trump to Postpone SOTU
2 hours ago
House Votes to Condemn Rep. King for Racist Comments
20 hours ago

"The House voted overwhelmingly to rebuke GOP Rep. Steve King for making racist comments in a recent interview. The rare resolution of disapproval, which included a broad denunciation of white supremacist and white nationalist movements, was passed on a 424-1 vote. But some House Democrats argue the move doesn't go far enough and are pushing censure motions against the Iowa Republican."

Steve King Will Vote For Resolution
21 hours ago
Judge Rules Against Air Traffic Controllers
22 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.