The new tenant in Gilbert’s University Building opened its doors to students Oct. 16 with the promise of finally getting the town where it wants to be on higher education.
The Gilbert campus is the third Arizona location and 42nd nationwide for Park University, which is based in the Kansas City suburb of Parkville, Missouri. The other two Arizona locations are at Luke and Davis-Monthan Air Force bases. Park has a strong, historic relationship with the military.
Experience managing multiple campuses and working with military members were two attractive factors to Gilbert in choosing Park to move into the University Building, Mayor Jenn Daniels said.
“Let’s say they had a tried-and-true model,” Daniels said. “We appreciated very much their focus on veterans. That fits in well with the values that we hold dear in this community, and their desire to work directly with the business community to ensure that their programs were going to meet the needs of the businesses.”
Course options will include undergraduate classes in liberal arts, business and criminal justice, and graduate classes in public administration, education technology and business. Several concentrations in each area will be offered.
While Park is only open to night students and specialized programs during the day at present, it will have a more conventional calendar with traditional and nontraditional students in the 2019-20 academic year, Executive Director Jeff Ehrlich said.
Higher education initiative
Employers told the town several years ago the region did not have enough higher education opportunities, Daniels said.
“We started asking ourselves the question of, ‘What is our local role in ensuring that we have workforce availability for our employers in the town of Gilbert?” Daniels said.
Former Mayor John Lewis then led the drive to build the University Building, which opened in 2015 with Chicago-based Saint Xavier University moving in. However, a state funding cut in Illinois ended up shuttering the campus 1,700 miles away in 2016.
Ehrlich is complimentary of Saint Xavier as a university, but its loss was Park’s gain. The town was determined to move ahead on its initiative.
“We’ve stayed committed and true to that vision despite some of the setbacks we’ve had,” Daniels said. “We are working toward having more higher ed opportunities and workforce development for our employers in the town.”
Donna Ehrlich, Jeff’s wife and the campus’ academic director, said the university has 24 students enrolled in person and close to that in online students, exceeding the university’s goal and putting them close to the Ehrlichs’ personal goal.
Athletics should help growth, too, as the Park Buccaneers will compete in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA, a governing body similar to the NCAA but generally for smaller schools. The Buccaneers is a play off the main campus’ mascot, the Pirates.
Accessibility and affordability
Park’s tuition costs $399 per credit hour for undergraduates at a campus center like Gilbert in the 2018-19 school year. Graduate students pay $560 per credit hour. Different discount rates apply to active-duty military, veterans, reservists, National Guard members, federal employees and dependents of those groups.
The college will accept Advanced Placement and some high school class credits. It has also sought agreements with the Maricopa County Community College District to transfer those schools’ hours, which would go toward building a flexible education model at a “reasonable price point,” Jeff Ehrlich said.
Another way Park seeks to build that model is through what it calls “validated learning experience” credit, or VLE, in which students can apply life experiences they have had to receive credits for them at a reduced cost.
“Every university can do it,” Ehrlich said. “It takes a little bit of work, but it’s a huge cost savings to the students.”
That is one way Erhlich said he sees Park fitting well into the town, as VLE credits could be helpful for Gilbert’s large Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints population who have served missions for the church.
“Those students who go on a mission come back with incredible knowledge, two years of maybe being in a different country or an entirely different culture,” Ehrlich said. “So now let’s bring them back and say, ‘Here’s 15 credits we can give you for that,’ or someone that goes on a pilgrimage. Same thing. Someone who goes on a Peace Corps [volunteer job]. Any of those things. We want to say, ‘You learned a lot. Let us help you convert that to credit.’”
Ehrlich said he sees these time- and cost-saving moves as being important to Park’s mission.
“Our success isn’t how long we keep a person in school,” he said. “Our success is putting someone out there that can go to the workplace, have a meaningful career in a reasonable amount of time and not be breaking the bank to do it.”
Park University occupies the first floor of the University Building, which accounts for about 11,000 square feet in the 89,000-square-foot building. It does have a right of refusal on other tenants as space becomes available, which gives the school room for expected future growth.
Park will pay the town nearly $800,000 in rent for three years in the building.
Ehrlich said he does not worry that low enrollment will cancel any classes. He said a “Pirate Patch” program allows students to come together in a campus classroom and watch remotely a lecture from a professor at the main campus or one of the other satellite sites. Students from several campuses can be in the same class that way.
“Gilbert did a fabulous job,” Ehrlich said. “This is the most technologically sound building—one of the best educational facilities I have ever seen.”
92 W. Vaughn Ave., Gilbert