Private colleges eye Phoenix suburbs

November 30, 2012

Starting next year, Phoenix suburbs will be flush with something they’ve never had much of before: private non-profit colleges. Eight new schools are gearing up for satellite campuses in Peoria and Mesa. As KJZZ’s Peter O’Dowd reports, the cities and the colleges have a lot to gain.

Judy Baker Scott Whyte Above, Judy Baker answers questions for prospective students at Benedictine University's branch campus in Mesa. Classes start next year. Below, the City of Peoria's Scott Whyte helped bring Indiana-based Trine University to Arizona. (Photos by Peter O'Dowd - KJZZ)

PETER O’DOWD: This is Trine University in Peoria… Not much yet…just a door opening to an empty classroom.

SCOTT WHYTE: ...which we can easily imagine being full of engineering students. 

O’DOWD: Scott Whyte works in economic development for the City of Peoria, a suburb northwest of Phoenix. The city has locked in the Indiana-based university, and is courting two others from the Midwest.

WHYTE: We’re looking for universities that have rich programming in STEM. Science, technology, engineering and math. That can help serve to establish our innovation economy. 

O’DOWD: Those words – innovation and economy -- are buzzing around a lot these days. In Peoria it’s easy to see why. Whyte says 93 percent of the labor force commutes to other cities. The local economy is propped up by home construction and retail.

WHYTE: We’re not diversified.

O’DOWD: Like so many other bedroom communities in the nation’s Sunbelt, this imbalance left Peoria hemorrhaging during the foreclosure crisis.

WHYTE: We were hard hit and we don’t want to repeat that. And that’s why we’re going down the road we are going to insulate ourselves as much as possible from those ill effects.

O’DOWD: So the city’s strategy is to lure high-tech employers with a crop of new engineers and health care workers. By spring, several hundred are expected to enroll here. A few years from now, Trine University President Earl Brooks envisions all three of Peoria’s new colleges existing as one, with shared curriculum and space.

EARL BROOKS: We have dreamed some point down the road, even residence life. You know a full-blown college campus.

O’DOWD: Brooks sees vast opportunity for Trine with 1.2 million people within 15 miles of Peoria. Private liberal arts colleges have long set their roots in the Midwest and Northeast. Now, with population centers shifting, these colleges are unmooring themselves and branching out. Roland King is with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

ROLAND KING:  I guess it overstates it to call this the new Gold Rush because it’s not quite at that level.

O’DOWD: But it is the future, King says. As small schools face more competition at home, they’re looking West where private college education is less established – and often non-existent. 

KING: It is underserved. So it kind of makes sense for these schools to move into that vacuum.

O’DOWD: So the match is made between colleges looking to grow and cities that need fresh brainpower. And maybe the biggest match yet is blossoming in downtown Mesa, 40 miles southeast of Peoria. In the past year, Mayor Scott Smith has announced plans for five – yes, five -- private-liberal arts colleges. All in operation by 2013.

SCOTT SMITH: We have Westminster College, from Fulton, Missouri.

O’DOWD: There’s Upper Iowa University.

SMITH: Albright College from Redding, Pennsylvania.

O’DOWD: Wilkes University, also of Pennsylvania. And finally, Benedictine University. We’re standing outside Benedictine’s sleek new student services center where pedestrians occasionally drop in to peak at the school’s course offerings. When it opens next fall, Benedictine will be the first Catholic college in Arizona.

SMITH: And so I think what you’re seeing, is the Arizona market coming of age very quickly. And we’re doing in a very short time what many other communities across the country did over the course of the last century.

O’DOWD: Four of the schools will open within a few blocks of here, creating an academic consortium. And Benedictine even has plans to start an athletics program.

SMITH: If we had a couple three, four thousand students in downtown Mesa, who are residents, it would change our community.

O’DOWD: Both Mesa and Peoria say there will be a key challenge to making the vision successful – getting Arizona students to pay a lot of money for schools that many have never heard of.