University of Phoenix plans new campus, while Virginia College looks to enter Columbus

More ripples are occurring in the for-profit education arena in Columbus, with the University of Phoenix planning a new campus location and Virginia College looking to enter the market.

Both schools are targeting sites in north Columbus, off Veterans Parkway, for their new campus structures, which should materialize over the course of this year.

The University of Phoenix, a subsidiary of Phoenix, Ariz.-based Apollo Group, will be opening in a 32,000-square-foot office building in North Lake Business Park. The site is near the northwest intersection of Veterans Parkway and J.R. Allen Parkway.

“It hasn’t gone through the approvals process with the Department of Education in Georgia,” Phoenix spokeswoman Shannon Sowby said Friday, explaining the university isn’t ready to talk about the new site or say if it plans to close one of two locations it already has in Columbus.

The school now occupies a large building at 4747 Hamilton Road and in the Brookstone Centre business park at what it calls its Brookstone Learning Center. The Hamilton Road campus opened in 2004 in a space formerly used by a discount department store.

Tempe, Ariz.-based Metro Commercial Properties is constructing the new office building for the University of Phoenix. Situated on 4.4 acres, development should begin soon, with completion scheduled by the end of this year, said Jack Hayes, who with partner and associate broker David Johnson negotiated the deal for Columbus-based Jordan Hart Commercial Services.

Fowler Design Associates of Atlanta and Phillips Construction, a Columbus general contractor, are working on the project, which will lead to a long-term lease between Metro Commercial Properties and the University of Phoenix.

“When they build a signature campus like this, they prefer to have a high-visibility location from a major highway. They want people to be able to see their building from a highway,” Hayes said of the site chosen by Metro and Phoenix.

“While this isn’t on Interstate 185, it is off the J.R. Allen Parkway,” he said. “So anybody who’s heading from south or midtown Columbus on Interstate 185, when they get off from J.R. Allen Parkway to go to Columbus Park Crossing, they’ll be looking right at this building.”

The University of Phoenix in Columbus has 3,200 students enrolled at the campus and online, with more than 100 local faculty members, Sowby said.

Virginia College, meanwhile, will likely be considerably under that figure on the student side. The Birmingham, Ala.-based school, owned by Education Corp. of America, typically has between 1,000 and 1,200 students when it opens a new school, said Don Keith, senior vice president of marketing and communications.

“There would be a staff of 100 to 130 full-time employees, plus adjunct instructors,” he said. “So it’s a pretty large payroll -- about a $5 million a year payroll -- we’ll be bringing to your market, if we’re approved and locate there.”

Keith confirmed Virginia College has identified a site for its Columbus campus, though he declined to say where it is.

The location, according to real-estate sources, is believed to be the former Hughes Supply building off Veterans Parkway, near the intersection of Whitesville Road and adjacent to a Walgreens pharmacy. The 71,000-square-foot structure, situated with other warehouse space on nearly 24 acres, is listed on the commercial real-estate Internet site, LoopNet.

“We can say that we have located a site that we think would present a good student experience,” Keith said. “But, again, pending regulatory approval and finalizing any site, we would hope to be able to open a campus in Columbus.”

Aside from the Georgia Department of Education, any new campus must be approved by the Washington, D.C-based Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, Keith said.

Generally speaking, however, Virginia College seeks locations along major arteries that allow students and staff easy access to its school, which has eight starting times for classes each year.

“When we move into a new town, we typically look for facilities that lend themselves well to being redeveloped into the sort of structure that we want, from classrooms to labs and offices,” Keith said of the college, which already has campuses in the Georgia cities of Augusta and Macon.

“Most of our schools also have cosmetology, and a lot of them have therapeutic massage,” he said. “As part of that, we have clinics that are open to the public that are run by the students. So there’s a retail element as well.”

The new building by the University of Phoenix and the pending debut of Virginia College follow last year’s entrance into the Columbus market by two other for-profit schools -- Strayer University and Miller-Motte Technical College.

Strayer located in a former Beacon University structure off Veterans Parkway not far from the Phoenix and Virginia sites. Miller-Motte set up shop on Box Road near the intersection of I-185 and Macon Road.

Both Phoenix and Strayer are good schools, Keith said, but they are different from Virginia in that they concentrate primarily on offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Virginia, he said, is geared more toward students earning diplomas and associate’s degrees in areas that include medical assisting, pharmacy technician and surgical technology.

“Most of those are one or two-year programs that lead to direct entry into the job market,” he said.

But no matter the curriculum or focus, Keith said, Virginia College wouldn’t be targeting Columbus if its educational needs were already being fully met by other schools.

“There are two big elements, and I’m sure the other people see this as well,” he said. “Anytime we are looking at a potential market for Virginia College, we are looking at where our graduates would work. So we talk to employers. We find out what their needs are. And if we see that they’re looking for employees in the programs that we typically teach, then that makes it a good location for us.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Columbus is home to one of nation’s largest U.S. military installations in Fort Benning, Keith said. The post on the city’s south side is in the middle of an expansion that is expected to add about 28,000 soldiers, civilian workers and spouses before this year is over.

“A big plus for Columbus is the military population,” he said. “One of the largest unemployed groups in America are returning veterans (leaving the service). We recognize that there’s a big need for skills training and practical education, and that’s what we bring.”

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