DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's report, now, on the college scene in Phoenix, which is becoming more crowded. In Arizona, a private college education has long been hard to find. But that is changing now. Eight schools are setting up satellite campuses in the Phoenix suburbs. From member station KJZZ, Peter O'Dowd reports.
PETER O'DOWD, BYLINE: This is Trine University in Peoria, Arizona.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)
O'DOWD: Not much, yet; just a door opening to an empty classroom, in an ordinary office park.
SCOTT WHYTE: Which we can easily imagine being full of engineering students.
O'DOWD: Scott Whyte works in economic development for Peoria, a suburb northwest of Phoenix. The city has locked in the university, from Northeastern Indiana; and is courting two others from the Midwest.
WHYTE: We're looking for universities that have a rich programming in STEM - science, technology, engineering and math - that can help serve to establish our innovation economy.
O'DOWD: Those words - innovation, economy - are buzzing around a lot these days. In Peoria, it's easy to see why. Whyte says 93 percent of the labor force commutes to other cities. The local economy is propped up by home construction and retail.
WHYTE: We're not diversified.
O'DOWD: Like so many other bedroom communities in the nation's Sunbelt, Whyte says this imbalance left Peoria hemorrhaging during the foreclosure crisis.
WHYTE: We were hard-hit, and so we don't want to repeat that. And so that's why we're going down the road that we are going - is to insulate ourselves, as much as possible, from those ill effects.
O'DOWD: So the city's strategy is to lure high-tech employers with a recession-proof crop of new engineers and health care workers. In the next five years, Trine will invest $28 million to hire nearly 1,500 adjunct professors. Long-term, Trine President Earl Brooks envisions all three of Peoria's new colleges existing as one sort of family, maybe even sharing curriculum and space.
EARL BROOKS: We have dreamed at some point down the road, potentially even - you know, residence life; you know, almost a full-blown college campus.
ROLAND KING: I guess it overstates it, to call this a new gold rush, because it's not quite at that level.
O'DOWD: But it is the future, says Roland King. He's with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. King says private liberal arts colleges have long set their roots in the nation's oldest cities. Now, they're unmooring themselves. and following shifting population centers into the Southwest.
KING: It's really underserved. So it kind of makes sense for these schools to move into that vacuum.
O'DOWD: So the match is made between colleges looking to grow, and cities that need fresh brainpower.
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O'DOWD: And maybe the biggest match yet is blossoming in downtown Mesa, just outside of Phoenix. In the past year, Mayor Scott Smith has announced plans for five - yes, five - satellite campuses for private liberal arts colleges, all in operation by next year.
MAYOR SCOTT SMITH: We have Westminster College; from Fulton, Missouri.
O'DOWD: There's Upper Iowa University.
SMITH: We have Albright College; from Redding, Pennsylvania.
O'DOWD: Wilkes University, also of Pennsylvania. And finally, Illinois' Benedictine University is setting up shop right here on Mesa's Main Street.
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O'DOWD: At Benedictine's sleek, new student services center, pedestrians occasionally drop in to peak at the school's course offerings.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, I was looking for international business in a specific region.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'll make note of that.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I have credits that are available and ready to be transferred.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Transferred...
O'DOWD: When it opens next fall, Benedictine will be the first Catholic college in Arizona. Three of the other schools will be a few blocks from here. Mesa Mayor Scott Smith says this will create an academic and social vibrancy in the city's core.
SMITH: I think what you're seeing is the Arizona market sort of come of age. And we're doing, in a very short time, what many other communities throughout the country did, over the course of the last century.
O'DOWD: Both Mesa and Peoria say there will be challenges to making this work. The biggest one? Getting students to pay a lot of money for schools that many in Arizona have never heard of.
For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd in Phoenix.
GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.