Westminster College's westward expansion lasted less than a year.
Lured by city officials in Mesa, Arizona, the Missouri private liberal arts college opened a branch campus there last fall, expecting a freshman class of up to 135 students. Surely, in a booming state like Arizona, it couldn't be hard to find that many. Other colleges thought the same. They have so far been wrong.
Westminster's Arizona outpost received only 30 applications. The college accepted 23. Enrollment for this coming fall also fell short of projections.
With its business plan busted, Westminster’s president announced this week the Mesa campus would close its doors after only two semesters.
Four other branch campuses started by distant private colleges are also struggling to meet enrollment projections in Mesa, a city in the Phoenix metropolitan area.
Mesa, which several years ago received $3 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to come up with a way to boost college completion, enticed five colleges from the Midwest and East Coast. In Mesa, officials sent letters to colleges across the country hoping to find partners who could help the city increase bring the college completion rate for low-income youths up from a dismal 8 percent.
Besides Westminster, Mesa attracted Illinois-based Benedictine University; Upper Iowa University; and two colleges from Pennsylvania, Albright College and Wilkes University. Each began enrolling students last year and has seen mixed results.
Westminster’s chief financial officer, Philip Daniels, said there is less than expected student demand and unexpected competition from the for-profit Grand Canyon University, which is preparing to open a campus in Mesa next year for 10,000 students.
So far, Albright, Upper Iowa and Wilkes report lower than expected enrollment at their Mesa branches.
“The proof will be in the pudding for Wilkes and Albright – hopefully they will survive,” Daniels said.
Grand Canyon’s mega project, announced last June, appears to have caught some of the private colleges off-guard. Grand Canyon’s degrees are likely to be less expensive than the privates’.
Wilkes, in northeast Pennsylvania, has already revised its business plan to deal with the lower enrollment, said Michael Speziale, the university’s vice president for strategic initiatives.
“We’ve also experienced a slow grow in terms of student enrollments, not that it would be totally unexpected for a small to mid-sized university from the East Coast to go west with little or no name recognition – it’s not like the ‘Field of Dreams,’ I guess,” he said.
Wilkes has about 25 graduate students on its Mesa campus, which Speziale said is sufficient to sustain the program. The college plans to start an undergraduate program next year and expects to have about 15 students by the fall of 2015. The college hopes to have several hundred students at its Mesa campus within the next five years.
Albright, another Pennsylvania private college, enrolls 11 students at its Mesa campus, said Jerry Lee, program administrator at the Mesa campus. He said officials had expected about 24 students in the first cohort. Still, Albright is planning to stick it out. Lee said he felt Westminster’s departure was “premature.”
“The three of us talk all the time about how things are here,” Lee said. “I don’t think any of the schools have turned net revenue since they have been here, but I don’t think that’s realistic to expect that the first year you open up.”
Upper Iowa, which has 19 branch campuses and is therefore a bit more experienced than the others, expected to enroll 100 students after its first year but is currently enrolling less than 50. But it’s not worried.
“We’ve done this before, and I’m not sure that all of the schools that went into Mesa had done it before,” said an Upper Iowa spokesman, Andrew Wenthe.
Benedictine University, a private Roman Catholic university with a main campus less than an hour outside of Chicago, has the highest enrollment of any of the four private colleges that came to Mesa: 93.
By fall, Benedictine expects to enroll 340 students at its Mesa campus, said a spokesman, Elliott Peppers.
The university has, by far, the largest investment of the four: a multimillion-dollar renovation. The three other colleges had three- or five-year leases.
The university is also Arizona’s first four-year Catholic institution, is planning to add eight men’s and women’s sports programs and is offering a $10,000 M.B.A. (Upper Iowa touts its undergraduate nursing program; Wilkes is offering an M.B.A. and also planning to offer undergraduate business degrees.)
A.T. Still University, a Missouri private that offers graduate degrees in health sciences, opened a branch campus in Mesa in 1995. It is seeing strong demand for its program. Three thousand people applied for 72 spots in its Arizona dental school.
Each new college is focusing on a slightly different population of students. Albright, for instance, hopes it can carve out a niche by attracting adults who want to finish their uncompleted degrees. Westminster took a look at the 250,000 or so community college students in Maricopa County’s 10 community colleges and hoped some would want to transfer to a private college. That didn’t end up happening, perhaps because Grand Canyon would be coming in, perhaps because of established transfer programs between the community colleges and Arizona State University and University of Arizona, or perhaps because the students just didn’t want a private college education.
For Westminster, the Mesa campus plan came undone in recent weeks because of lower than expected enrollment for fall 2014. The college, which was told by its accreditor in 2005 it had "enrollment and finance challenges" at its main campus, was also relying on donations to fund the Mesa operation since it did not want to take any money from its main campus in Fulton, Missouri.
The original budget for fall 2013 expected 60 to 135 students; 23 enrolled at first, though that number eventually grew to 32 in the current academic year. The college, which had hoped for new tuition revenue, found that it had to rely on donations: after the lower than expected enrollment, it now expects to fund its Arizona expedition with $330,000 in donations and just $212,000 from tuition, according to the Higher Learning Commission. Its modeling suggests it could end the academic year $2,000 in the red.