Posted Jan 6, 2010, 12:01 PM
Join Date: Apr 2006
Location: Willo, Midtown, Phoenix, Az
Mesa mayor hopes to attract more colleges to city
5 comments by Gary Nelson - Jan. 6, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
The people who flowed to Arizona by the millions from frontier days through the postwar rush to urbanize neglected to bring one critical thing with them:
The visionary mind-set that seeded America's older cities and small towns with tree-lined, ivy-draped college and university campuses.
Arizona has only a fraction of the number of four-year colleges found in other states its size, and among America's big cities, Mesa stands out as one of the most barren when it comes to higher education.
That doesn't sit well with Mayor Scott Smith, who is working to lure a major medical school or other college to the nation's 38th-largest city.
"We could put five colleges in here and we wouldn't even begin to match what cities our size in other areas of the country have," Smith said.
He cited Pittsburgh, which boasts a population of slightly more than 300,000 - 160,000 fewer than Mesa - but which is home to prestigious schools such as Carnegie Mellon University, Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as several smaller schools.
Mesa, with about 460,000 people, has one four-year campus, Arizona State University Polytechnic, which was created 15 years ago to relieve overcrowding at the Tempe campus.
Mesa's educational void is hardly unique in Arizona. Communities large and small around the state draw a blank on the four-year college scorecard.
Even Phoenix has only two four-year liberal-arts colleges: an ASU campus and Grand Canyon University. The situation has both deep historical roots and profound implications for Arizona and its future, with statistics showing Arizona students lag behind their peers across the nation in the pursuit of further education.
Wrong end of history
Arizona's lack of higher-education options is largely a matter of timing, according to Luther Spoehr, senior lecturer on education and history at Brown University in Providence, R.I., a city of about 170,000 people that boasts at least six four-year campuses.
"Providence and Rhode Island are part of a larger pattern that is really typical of New England and the Northeast," he said.
America's first wave of college and university development, which began in the 1600s and 1700s, was largely a product of religious denominations that wanted a highly educated clergy. By the 19th century, a big dose of civic boosterism entered the mix.
"There was a strong sense that if you were going to be a real town, you were going to have certain things, and one of those things would be a college," Spoehr said.
Arizona at the time was a blank slate, part of the land that the United States had acquired after the war with Mexico in 1848. "It's not even on the radar screen," Spoehr said.
A second wave of college growth occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much more secular in nature and fueled by an 1862 federal law that gave states land to establish colleges focusing on practical education.
"The first two waves have pretty much ended by the time Arizona gets started (as a state in 1912)," Spoehr said.
Arizona's "frontier mentality" played a part, too, he said. People who mined and ranched for a living didn't see much need for books.
Marshall Trimble, Arizona's official historian, thinks several other factors contributed to Arizona's college gap.
"When the University of Arizona opened its doors in 1891, there was not a single high school in the whole territory," Trimble said. "I don't think education was a big priority like it was in more settled places."
In modern times, he said, Arizona has had a hard time keeping up with the needs created by its postwar population surge, and he blamed legislatures of the past 40 to 50 years for not getting in front of the issue.
"It just seems like education is not the priority it should be in the Legislature," he said.
Trimble said university politics also may have played a part in limiting the number of campuses in Arizona.
"I'm just wondering if the UofA and ASU have just sort of discouraged this because of the competition," he added.
In the 1950s, Trimble said, UA was so opposed to ASU assuming university status that it took a statewide vote in 1958 to try to prevent that from happening.
"It was resisted fiercely by Pima County," Trimble said. "They just didn't think Arizona should have another university."
Trimble, who teaches Southwest studies at Scottsdale Community College, said even he, at age 70, is affected.
"I sure would like to finish out my career at some small liberal arts college," he said. "You can't do that in Arizona."
Regardless of the root causes, Mesa's mayor believes the college gap has real consequences for Arizona's ability to produce the well-educated workforce it needs to attract good jobs and compete on the global stage.
"One of the things that is keeping this state back is we have a disproportionate amount of our high-school graduates who are not moving on to higher education," Smith said.
The most recent federal statistics show Arizona is last among states, with only 45 percent of high-school graduates in 2006 going on to college.
With only 39 percent of Arizona graduates attending college in their home state, Arizona ranks near the bottom in that category, too. And when people go to college out of state, they are 30 percent less likely than in-state college students to work in their home states as adults, according to research by Illinois State University.
"This results in a brain drain of high-skilled citizens," the study said.
Smith said Arizona's gargantuan state universities - ASU with 68,000 students and UA with 36,000 - intimidate many young people. But Arizona's high-school grads don't have many other options.
The Republic counted eight residential four-year campuses in the entire state, including the four operated by ASU and excluding religious seminaries.
Iowa, whose 3 million people are just half of Arizona's population, has at least 29.
Looking to diversify
It's not that Mesa is completely lacking when it comes to post-secondary schooling.
ASU Poly has about 10,000 students. Mesa Community College educates more than 20,000 students on several campuses. A.T. Still University is growing in size and prestige as a medical and dental school in the city's southeastern corner. And Northern Arizona University offers several degree programs at a small downtown campus.
But Smith wants more.
"There are students out there that may need something different," he said. "And maybe having these smaller, different approaches, which we know exist all over the country - we need more of those."
Mesa hopes to use city-owned land to lure high-end educational institutions to the downtown area. The council has approved two feasibility studies to determine whether there is a market for higher education downtown.
One $25,000 study will examine a 30-acre site near an abandoned World War II-era public-housing project at Mesa and University drives that the city wants to redevelop.
Bill Jabjiniak, Mesa's economic-development director, said at least one medical school, which he wouldn't identify, has shown interest in the site.
The other study, for $45,000, will look at the broader issue of locating a campus in the square-mile downtown.
City Manager Chris Brady said he talked with officials at Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg about expanding to Mesa. That effort is off to a small-scale beginning.
The university, operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has established a pilot program in an existing church-owned Institute of Religion building in east Mesa.
Andy Cargal, BYU-Idaho spokesman, said seven students enrolled in the first semester.
"The premise behind it is to provide students who maybe otherwise wouldn't go to college or would have a difficult time going to college because of financial circumstances . . . to still get some skills or work toward getting a full degree if they want one," Cargal said.
The program is still experimental, and BYU-Idaho has no plans to build a campus in Mesa, Cargal said.
Although that's not the kind of iconic campus Smith has talked about, he's willing to accept all comers.
Brady agreed with Smith that Arizona's future is cloudy without further efforts to develop its higher education and build a more diversified economy that doesn't depend on the vicissitudes of growth. "If there was ever a time to retool our labor force with education, this is it," Brady said. "The future of Arizona's economy can't be based on construction. It's nice to have, but that's not our core element. ... We've got to build that sustainable labor pool out there."
Arizona education snapshot
Population 25 and older with college degrees
Rank: 32nd place
High-school graduates attending college
Rank: Last place
High-school graduates attending college in home state
Rank: 41st place
Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; U.S. Department of Education statistics from 2006, the latest available
A broad push for expanding higher education in Arizona
While Mesa leaders have been vocal about their desire for more college campuses, other Arizonans also are looking at ways to expand the state's higher-education portfolio.
State Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, advocates building eight state colleges around Arizona instead of continually expanding its existing universities.
The colleges would focus on teaching while universities would continue their growing emphasis on research, Kavanagh said.
"For the person who just wants to open a business, a state college degree would be just fine," he said. "California has that system, and it's very successful."
In the West Valley, Goodyear has created a task force to look at how to establish an Arizona State University campus.
ASU has said it wants to start a campus there by 2011, with Goodyear footing the bill.
Temporary facilities could cost $3 million to $5 million, with permanent facilities running $35 million to $50 million.
Goodyear Mayor Jim Cavanaugh has said he is looking into whether private money can help with the ASU effort.
Also in Goodyear, Franklin Pierce University, a New Hampshire-based liberal-arts school, is teaching classes and has a 99-year lease on land near Estrella Parkway and Yuma Road, where the city wants to concentrate its campuses.
- Gary Nelson and Eli Arnold
Fucking finally, now someones doing some thinkin!