The narrative of higher education in Arizona is dominated by rapid growth in both the public and for-profit sectors (see Arizona State University and the University of Phoenix.) The state has no private nonprofit colleges, but that might soon change.
Three colleges, each from a different region of the country, have shown serious interest in bringing programs or full-fledged branch campuses to a town of fewer than 50,000 people outside of Phoenix.
Officials from Franklin Pierce College, in New Hampshire; Notre Dame College, in Ohio; and the University of the Incarnate Word, in Texas, attended a recent three-day higher education conference hosted by the city of Goodyear, Ariz., where developers mingled with administrators and city officials made their sales pitches.
While nothing has been formally announced, it seems likely that one or more of the colleges will have a presence in the region within the next two years -- a sign of the changing ways that institutions see themselves in an expanding marketplace.
"For a long time, most of us have operated under the assumption that growth [in places like Arizona] is predominantly in the state institutions," said Michael Bell, provost of Franklin Pierce. "But now people are rethinking what a map of higher education ought to look like."
Goodyear has more than doubled in population over the past five years with no slowing in sight. James M. Cavanaugh, the city's mayor, decided that to further spur economic growth, the region ought to woo colleges. The mayor first put out feelers  to the Council of Independent Colleges, which relayed the message earlier this year to its members. A handful of institutions responded that they would consider expanding into Arizona, and the city chose five colleges that it thought would be a good fit.
It remains to be seen what type of arrangement the colleges would make if they decide to offer programs that are hundreds or thousands of miles away from their home bases. The traditional branch campus model involves a college placing buildings in the same region as its main campus and using many existing resources.
In the case of the Goodyear expansion, one idea is to create a consortium modeled off the Claremont Colleges. Richard Ekman, president of the Council of Independent Colleges, said how the programs are arranged will go a long way toward determining the feasibility of the project. “If you have lots of colleges offering grandiose programs, they are competing with each other," Ekman said. "Sorting out who is doing what could be a logistical issue."
As soon as several institutions are involved, there becomes a need for a centralized coordinating body, Ekman said. But even the most established consortium arrangements aren't financial boons; they are there to help coordinate academic offerings, he said.
"The city has an incentive to bring as many programs as possible, but the colleges will have the best chance of survival if they are offering different programs with one central administration. You can't run this off a registrar's computer back in the hometown," he said.
Sarah Murley, a partner at Phoenix-based economic consulting firm Applied Economics, which was brought in by Goodyear to provide a feasibility analysis, said it would take a substantial base of students to support a joint library or a joint dining hall, for instance. Neither Murley nor college officials cited a specific figure.
Murley said the colleges are thinking about doing what they can to limit overhead, including renting space in buildings and limiting their program offerings at first. She said graduate business and management degrees are the most portable programs, and that liberal arts courses would likely be the last to arrive.
"Over the long term, Goodyear wants to attract a broader base of programs, and attract colleges that want to replicate their original location somewhere else," she said.
One college that expressed early interest, Alma College, in Michigan, has since backed out. "We would be open to like opportunities in the future, but at this time it wasn't the right thing for us. We were intrigued by possibilities there, and while distance was a factor it wasn't what caused us to step away,” said Jerry Scoby, the college's vice president for finance and administration.
Some of the interested colleges have dipped their toes into satellite campuses already. University of the Incarnate Word has branches in China and Mexico and is looking to expand into other areas. Terry Dicianna, provost of the college, said those branches look much like the home campus -- offering traditional liberal arts courses in a smaller setting.
Dicianna said the hope would be to eventually have under its wings a two-year college in the Phoenix area and an upper division program located in Goodyear that focuses on the liberal arts. Graduate programs in business, nursing and other science fields would also be a priority, he said.
“If it can be a financial benefit to us, to students and to the community, we will do it,” Dicianna said.
Gary Norgan, an associate professor of nursing and head of the Faculty Senate at University of the Incarnate Word, said the proposal hasn’t been brought before the entire faculty and will likely come up at a meeting next semester.
“When we first started doing satellite campuses, I was skeptical,” Norgan said. “But it’s proven to be a very good opportunity for faculty who want to travel or try something different.”
At Franklin Pierce, possible expansion plans are being managed through the division of Graduate and Professional Studies. The college plans to open an office in Arizona early next year to help determine whether the idea has legs, and Bell, the provost, said it is “under very serious consideration.”
Raymond Van der Riet, dean of Graduate and Professional Studies, said the college has considered both what it would be like to enter into a consortium and also what it would be like to enter into the marketplace alone (but has not made any final determinations.) The college of more than 3,200 students (including undergraduates, graduates and adult students) has already spread itself throughout New Hampshire with professional programs and online education offerings.
Officials say the initial plan would to be to concentrate on graduate and adult education programs in Goodyear and not to ship a philosophy department to Arizona. Bell said because the college already has an established doctoral training program in physical therapy, for instance, it could focus its Goodyear efforts on establishing new medical training programs (which the college sees as lacking in that region.)
Van der Riet said that Goodyear has thus far been hesitant to promise incentives, but that land grants or other packages could become a major factor. “We’re generally optimistic for developers to come forth with a package that may make this endeavor quite interesting,” he said.
Cavanaugh, the Goodyear mayor, said the city is committed to helping arrange office and classroom leases, and it plans to develop a city center with the colleges in mind.