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Raising the bar on higher education

Mesa U EducatesMesa emerging as a major hub for higher education, not just in the Southwest but nationally

Mesa Educates U is a new initiative positioning Mesa as a destination for higher education in Arizona and the Southwest, including the mid-2013 launch of the Mesa Center for Higher Education, but it has its roots in a longer-term development program. In 2008, after the election of Mayor Scott Smith, Mesa’s HEAT initiative — focusing on healthcare, education, aerospace/aviation, and tourism — was designed to be a joint effort between the city’s Economic Development department and others in the community.

“Education was the first aspect we decided to tackle, since we already had strong institutions such as Arizona State University Polytechnic, A.T. Still University, Mesa Community College, and Chandler-Gilbert Community College,” said Economic Development Director Bill Jabjiniak. “So, we needed to think in terms of strategy around education and how we could boost Mesa’s presence.”

Fittingly, the initiative to increase the impact of higher education within Mesa required a bit of homework — in the form of a study commissioned in 2010 to look at the market and region, and to identify gaps. From more than 1,000 letters sent to schools around the country, twelve qualifiers met in person with city leaders, and four finalists committed over the course of this year: Benedictine University, Westminster College, Wilkes University, and Albright College.

Westminster and Wilkes currently reside in the downtown Mesa Center for Higher Education, in the former City Court building at 245 W. Second St., while Benedictine occupies a separate facility, the former social-services building at 225 E. Main St.  Albright College offers its courses a few miles away in Mesa’s vibrant Fiesta District.

“We’ve proven that we can set a good example to follow, using innovative approaches and aggressive economic development strategies that others would want to emulate.”

— Mesa Mayor Scott Smith

“It’s unusual for a city to take the initiative to create a location where institutions can partner resources and access,” said Jabjiniak. “There are examples of schools joining consortiums, such as Claremont Colleges in California or Rio Salado here in the Valley, but those are largely institution driven. This is unique, with the city leadership and community investing in and supporting a collaborative environment.”

Having downtown as a campus gathering place is a natural for Mesa, with the Mesa Arts Center, museums, library and athletic facilities such as the state-of-the-art, year-round sports and parks venue in 2014. In addition, the completion of light rail down Main Street in 2015 will be a huge asset for resident and commuter students alike.

City leaders are particularly encouraged by potential partnerships with employers in the community. Wilkes University, for example, is bringing its engineering program, tying into Boeing, MD Helicopters, ATK, and other high-tech companies. “It’s not just about the students working there after graduating, but business partnerships that feed students into the programs and internship opportunities for real-world experiences,” said Jabjiniak. “When you have companies such as Intel, Empire Southwest, Banner Health, and the aerospace firms near Phoenix Mesa Gateway Airport, it’s exciting to think about what a bigger educational community can offer students while in school and after.”

“We wanted to change the way Mesa did business, elevating our standing not only in the community, but throughout the Southwest region,” said Mayor Scott Smith. “We’ve proven that we can set a good example to follow, using innovative approaches and aggressive economic development strategies that others would want to emulate.”