The Next Frontier for Private Colleges

A small town outside Phoenix is opening its arms to small private colleges -- and some from the Midwest are taking a serious look.
August 4, 2006

No sooner did the request from the city of Goodyear, Ariz., for colleges to start programs there hit the desk of Saundra Tracy, president of Alma College, in Michigan, than it hit the trash can.

But when Tracy started having conversations about how a small, liberal arts institution can prepare itself for the future and expand the experiences of its students, the vast majority of whom are from the Midwest, she headed back to the trash.

It’s not unusual for cities to court big businesses, but the government of Goodyear, a town of 46,000 outside Phoenix, is trying to lure small private colleges to set up programs, and hopefully branch campuses.

Goodyear's mayor, James Cavanaugh, grew up on the East Coast, which is awash in private colleges, compared to the Southwest. “I traced my thoughts back to where I once was, and I thought there’s an opportunity there,” Cavanaugh said. “Arizona is largely a public school domain. I thought, ‘why don’t we make an effort to see if we can be attractive to private higher ed?’”

So Cavanaugh sent a letter to the Council of Independent Colleges expressing his interest in private colleges, and the council sent it out to its members. Nine institutions got in touch with Goodyear, and the city has chosen five that might be a good fit. “I would love all of them to come,” Cavanaugh said. The city is considering land grants, among other enticements.

None of the five are sure if they’ll start branches or programs in Arizona yet, but the prospect has intrigued some administrators, like Tracy.

Tracy went out to visit Goodyear, and told city officials that Alma, with its enrollment of 1,300, “isn’t McDonald's. We don’t franchise.” But, she added, “doing something innovative that could enhance opportunities for our students” who might spend time at an Arizona campus, could be worthwhile.

One of the most intriguing things for the administrators, who are from areas with relatively stagnant populations, is the demographic trend of Goodyear. In 1990, the city had a piddly 6,258 people, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. By 2000, nearly 19,000 people lived in Goodyear, and today there are 46,000 and no sign that growth will slow in so-called West Valley.

Andrew P. Roth, president of Notre Dame College, in Ohio, said that his college is at capacity, with about 1,400 students, and could use more space to take on more students. Roth noted that he knows of only two Roman Catholic colleges in all of Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. “We thought, ‘Boy, since our mission is to do outreach,’ ” Roth said, “ ‘there’s a phenomenal opportunity there.’ ”

Major questions, however, remain. The colleges don’t want to move to the desert only to find it barren of students. So the city has hired an outside consultant to assess the Goodyear market place as it suits the colleges.

“The big question is,” said Roth, “is there some systemic reason there aren’t any privates in the area, or have a lot of people just missed an opportunity?” For Notre Dame, and two of the other Catholic colleges -- University of the Incarnate Word, in Texas, and University of St. Francis, in Illinois -- Roth said there’s also the question of why there aren’t any Catholic colleges.

Russell E. Willis, provost of Champlain College, in Vermont, another college on the list, said that his institution, like the others, is basically in wait-and-see mode until a report from the consultant is ready. “We’ll have to figure out what the investment is, and how to defray some of the risk,” Willis said. “It would take a relatively large investment from somebody. How much of that is from foundation grants, or the city, or tuition?”

Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, said that extending their reach can invigorate colleges, and that, while there are challenges, colleges opening branch campuses can weather some of the difficulties because the branch can “piggy back” the main campuses' accreditation. Ekman said that “lots of colleges have done this,” and that modern technology has made communication between sites convenient.

Administrators seemed cautiously optimistic, with the emphasis on cautious, at this point. All agreed, though, that the idea itself is exciting. “It really is right out of the history of American higher ed,” Roth said. He said that when pioneers settled down, they’d “found a church, build a saloon, and then open a college.”


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