The rise of higher education in Mesa got a boost of recognition in May when the Alliance for Innovation presented the city with its J. Robert Havlick Award for Innovation in Local Government.

Mesa’s submission, entitled “How Mesa Became a College Town,” detailed efforts to bring satellite campuses to Mesa from schools around the country.

Currently, four schools have set up shop in the city since 2013, enrolling 183 students in person and another 75 online. Wilkes University, Benedictine University, Upper Iowa University and Albright College have started classes in a variety of programs.

Jaye O’Donnell, deputy director of Mesa’s Office of Economic Development, coordinated the program and submitted the application for the award. She said the idea started right here with former Mayor Scott Smith and the City Council.

“I think this initiative really stemmed from a vision that the mayor and council had to really diversify educational offerings,” O’Donnell said.

About the city’s efforts to bring the schools to Mesa, O’Donnell said it was a joint effort between the city and schools, the city helping with infrastructure — spending more than $17 million, and the schools investing in the resources necessary to effectively teach students in a remote location.

“Clearly, we think that all the schools that are here are providing a tremendous value to the students. I do think the biggest accomplishment was landing this cluster of schools in year one. Our initial goal was to attract five schools and 1,500 students in the first five years. We got five schools in year one,” O’Donnell said.

Although the fifth school, Westminster College, did end up closing its Mesa campus due to low enrollment, the program appears to be a resounding success.

Lea Armstrong, an MBA student at Wilkes University in Mesa, said the small class sizes, overlapping classes and concepts between courses and overall sense of community are what she enjoys about studying in Mesa. She even commutes from the West Valley and remarks that she considers the trek entirely worth it.

“We can take (class) in different directions that we wouldn’t be able to do if we were in a lecture hall,” Armstrong said.

Mesa competed with other government entities across the nation and even from Canada and Australia, beating out submissions from Austin, Texas, Richmond, Va., and many others.

Besides the nearly 300 students, the program has generated $6.5 million in new private investment in the area, 44 new full-time jobs and occupied more than 85,000 square feet of previously long-term vacant space.

Also established was the Mesa Educates U Scholarship Program, which, in the next five years, will provide $700,000 in tuition costs to nearly 80 Mesa residents.

O’Donnell points out that several departments within the city were involved, not just economic development. She described the program as a labor of love that has taken years to build.

“I do think that this is truly an award that the entire city can celebrate.”

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