When Mesa officials asked more than 1,000 liberal arts colleges last year if they’d consider opening a Western branch campus, city officials had no idea how their unsolicited proposals would be received.
But now that a fourth college has inked a deal to establish a campus in Mesa, the city has found itself in an unusual position when dealing with anybody would move its downtown.
The city is actually too overwhelmed to take on anything else.
“We have had plenty of calls, believe me,” Mayor Scott Smith said. “We are telling them our plate’s full.”
With that, the final liberal arts college set to establish a downtown campus will be Wilkes University of Wilkes-Barre, Penn. It will join Westminster and Albright colleges in a former court building starting in the fall of 2013.
Mesa is already scouting locations to expand when the colleges fill up the 53,000-square-foot education center.
Wilkes could do that in three years. Smith estimates at least 1,000 students will be downtown in 3-5 years under the most conservative projections. The number could eventually reach 3,000 to 5,000, he said. That includes Benedictine University, which will open in a separate city-owned building.
Smith said Mesa won’t recruit more liberal arts colleges because the arriving universities need time to form a new model for shared facilities. As the colleges have come on board, Smith said Mesa has given more thought to the quality of the student experience.
“We’ve shifted our expectations,” he said. “We want to build something that is nationally recognized as an example of the way that higher education can work and can excel in the 21st Century.”
Smith said he wants the colleges to be an integral part of the community, including economic development efforts. He envisions the colleges blending into the downtown so it’s difficult to tell what’s part of each campus and the rest of the area.
“We’ve sold downtown as creating an environment where students’ educational experience can be maximized,” Smith said.
One potential model, Smith said, is Claremont, Calif., where seven colleges span about a square mile.
But as Mesa is putting a hold on liberal arts colleges, Smith hinted the higher education initiative will yield something else. The city is interested in a different type of college, such as a medical school.
The city would be willing to work with an institution like that, he said.
“If we have an announcement again, there will be a twist to it,” Smith said.
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