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Several area colleges working together to educate at Cranberry campus

| Monday, Dec. 2, 2013, 11:59 p.m.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Justin C. Griffith is the CEO of the Regional Learning Alliance in Cranberry, Tuesday, November 12, 2013.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
The Regional Learning Alliance is located in Cranberry, Tuesday, November 12, 2013.
Keith Hodan | Tribune-Review
Justin C. Griffith is the CEO of the Regional Learning Alliance in Cranberry, Tuesday, November 12, 2013.

At the end of a road that winds through Cranberry Woods Office Park, the Regional Learning Alliance could be easy to miss.

But the nation's largest collaborative college campus, one of 32 sites across the country specifically designed for multiple schools, might hold a few lessons for policymakers seeking to link the nation's colleges and universities with workforce needs.

“The (Regional Learning Alliance) might be classified as a well-kept secret, but I think it's a good example of debunking the tradition that schools cannot play together,” said Jim Shankel, director of Carlow University's graduate and adult enrollment at the site. “I think we've all worked well together there. We've had an agreement that if we're not running a class on a particular semester and another member is, we'll give our students credit for taking it.”

In addition to Carlow, the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State and five other colleges and universities offer courses at the alliance, situated just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike and Interstate 79. Pitt focuses on graduate engineering programs. Penn State offers an MBA program and degrees in information sciences and nursing, and a program in organizational leadership.

More than 400 businesses and professional groups tap the 28-room high-tech center for training seminars, business meetings and professional development programs.

And it is home to the HeartPrints Center for Early Education, a nonprofit, private academic institution offering education for children age 3 through kindergarten.

“We are the only self-sustaining collaborative campus in the country. We were listed as one of the top 10 reasons for Westinghouse, which is located up the hill from the alliance, staying in Pittsburgh,” said CEO Justin Griffith.

“It clearly was an important part of our decision to locate here,” said Westinghouse spokesman Vaughn Gilbert. “We hold a number of events there. We have a very close and mutually beneficial relationship.”

Colleges tend to succeed at the facility because their offerings are designed to meet specific needs that businesses identify, Griffith said.

The facility provides technologies that allow colleges and businesses to connect with remote sites around the world.

“We've upgraded our technology four times since we opened in 2004,” Griffith said.

“It is just a fabulous facility,” said Nancy Miller, co-director of continuing education at Penn State New Kensington.

Business and industry have been partners from day one. Located next door, Mine Safety Appliances offered Bob Smith, who has since retired as Slippery Rock University president, a site for the facility.

Smith shepherded the sprawling, green building with a three-story atrium from concept through construction.

“I was vice president for academic affairs at Slippery Rock. We had a fledgling continuing education program that was going nowhere. There was a cry, ‘You need to be in Cranberry,' ” Smith recalled.

At the time, 16 colleges and universities had outposts scattered at shopping centers and strip malls in the township. Smith thought there had to be a better idea and remembered a collaborative facility in Tennessee.

“I thought it would be far better to be collaborative, share the costs and gain that advantage than it would be to be a competitor across the street,” Smith said.

Then-Gov. Ed Rendell liked the idea, promised a state grant, and the project took off.

But colleges initially were less than eager to join forces.

“It was a hard sell. It broke so many molds in higher education,” Smith recalled.

Shankel said Carlow's location at the alliance has helped the Oakland school, which offers a bachelor's degree completion program for registered nurses and a master's in nursing that enrolled about 200 students over the past five years.

“We were the first school to sign on to become part of it in August 2004. And we've deemed it a success,” he said.

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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