4th university joins downtown Mesa college initiative - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Education News

4th university joins downtown Mesa college initiative

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Posted: Monday, July 9, 2012 4:42 pm | Updated: 7:45 pm, Tue Aug 13, 2013.

Mesa has secured a fourth liberal arts college for a planned higher education center that’s set to open downtown in the fall of 2013.

Wilkes University of Wilkes-Barre, Penn., will offer undergraduate and graduate programs in a city-owned facility shared by two other colleges. The location won’t be ready for a little more than a year, but Wilkes plans to open in January 2013 at a temporary site.

Wilkes is considered one of the fastest growing universities; from 2004 to 2009, it boosted enrollment 43 percent to about 6,200. The college began as a small residential campus but has since expanded to about 50 satellite branches and an online component. This is the first location outside Pennsylvania.

“We see this as a perfect continuation of our mission as an institution,” Wilkes President Patrick Leahy said during a visit to Mesa Monday.

Wilkes was one of the first colleges to tour Mesa last year when the city solicited hundreds of universities to establish branches here. The deal was delayed by factors that included Wilkes hiring a new president. Leahy is only in his second week of the job — so fresh that he didn’t have business cards to share as he was introduced to the community on Monday.

Leahy said the proposed Mesa campus was one factor that fueled his interest in his post. Also, the college’s research showed rising demand for degrees in the Southwest while demand will fall around its base in the Northeast, said Michael Speziale, a dean at Wilkes.

The college expects to offer master’s degrees in business administration, engineering management, creative writing, teaching English as a second language, and classroom technology in January 2013. It also plans to offer bachelor’s degrees in engineering, accounting and entrepreneurship. Wilkes expects to enroll 275 students within three years.

Wilkes administrators don’t believe their programs will directly compete with the other new colleges, which Speziale said also drew the institution to Mesa’s concept.

Wilkes will share a 53,000-square-foot former courthouse at 245 W. Second Street with Westminster College and Albright College. Also, Mesa has a deal for Benedictine University to take over the former Tri-City Community Service Center, 225 E. Main St.

The colleges plan to share some back-office functions to eliminate duplicative costs. And Mayor Scott Smith said the institutions could share student housing, or at times professors or academic offerings. Those plans are all conceptual, and will likely be discussed this fall in a summit with the college presidents and administrators at Arizona State University.

“We don’t know where this will go,” Smith said. “We just know that there’s a lot of opportunity and we’re excited to see this play out.”

Wilkes was founded in 1933, making it the newest of the colleges to establish a Mesa branch. It has been ranked one of the nation’s best universities by U.S. News and World Report. Princeton Review ranked it on its Best Northeastern Colleges list.

Wilkes is part of Mesa’s effort to boost the number of residents who hold college degrees. Also, the city wants to create a college town atmosphere downtown to boost its livability and economic development.

Smith estimates at least 1,000 students downtown in 3-5 years under the most conservative projections. The number could eventually reach 3,000 to 5,000, he said.

Wilkes expects it will reach capacity in its new home within three years. Smith said the city is already helping the new colleges locate potential expansion sites downtown.

Mesa announced the first college in January and has ended recruitment efforts targeting liberal arts universities, Smith said. The city wants to ensure the new colleges can establish themselves before shifting its efforts, he said.

But he suggested a different type of institution, perhaps a medical school, could be in the works.

“I would not say this will be the last downtown announcement,” Smith said.

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