The gleaming biomedical sciences and engineering building that just opened in a technology corridor of suburban Maryland testifies to the power of a novel idea: Offer degrees from several public universities through one commuter-friendly campus, and the students will come.
The Universities at Shady Grove has enabled thousands of transfer students to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in the past two decades from an array of schools in the University System of Maryland.
Built with $175 million in state money, the 220,000-square-foot edifice of brick, glass and textured stone provides laboratories and classrooms that double the academic footprint at Shady Grove. The building also raises the ambitions of a campus that has quietly grown into an educational force in an economically dynamic expanse of the Washington region that has no four-year public university to call its own.
Shady Grove, a destination for many who start in community college, is home to about 3,000 students. It has no residence halls, no intercollegiate athletics and no freshmen.
With the expansion, the campus is projected to draw up to 7,500 students in coming years to obtain degrees from any of nine public universities in Maryland. The diplomas come straight from those universities, without extra notations or qualifiers.
The new building - dedicated Thursday by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and other public officials - will enable growth of degree programs in fields such as clinical dental hygiene, translational life science technology and cybersecurity.
Public and private institutions across the country have many ways to deliver higher education to transfer students and others who do not fit the archetype of the 18-year-old who leaves home for college. But education officials say the Shady Grove campus sets an unusual example nationally because of its scope and mission.
"We're unique - number one, because of our size," said Stewart Edelstein, executive director of Shady Grove since 2002. Elsewhere, he said, "you won't find the diversity of degrees and number of institutions."
Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said she does not know of any multi-school campus as large as Shady Grove. The idea is appealing, she said, for states with significant pockets of underserved populations, especially in rural areas. "It's the way that higher ed's going to have to reinvent itself," she said.
Mikal Abraha, 21, daughter of Eritrean immigrants in Silver Spring, Maryland, is a prime example of the beneficiaries of the hub strategy. President of the Shady Grove student council, the senior in biological sciences is on course to earn a bachelor's in May from the flagship University of Maryland. She has not taken any classes in College Park.
Abraha transferred after two years at Montgomery College and plans to graduate debt-free. She cut costs by starting at the community college, and she saved on fees and living expenses by enrolling through Shady Grove. Her sister, also at Shady Grove, hopes to follow suit in 2021. Abraha predicted the new science and technology building will be a magnet for students like them. "There are so many reasons to choose USG," she said, using an acronym for the campus.
Launched in 2000, Shady Grove is the largest of three multi-school hubs in Maryland. It is based in the state's most populous county, Montgomery, which by quirk of Maryland history has no public four-year college or university. Neighboring Prince George's County has U-Md., Bowie State University and the headquarters of the online-focused University of Maryland Global Campus. Baltimore County has two public universities, and the city of Baltimore has four.
Across the Potomac River in Virginia, public George Mason University has campuses in Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties. The public University of the District of Columbia serves the capital.
Shady Grove is not meant to be a substitute for a residential university, but it does help fill an educational need by bringing universities to Montgomery. Among the state schools with a presence on the Shady Grove campus: the University of Maryland at Baltimore, Towson University, Salisbury University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Tuition at Shady Grove is equivalent to what universities charge on home campuses. But fees are generally lower, officials say, and Shady Grove offers some students supplementary scholarships.
"This part of the state is important to the whole state," said Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, which offers several programs at Shady Grove. "By having a presence here, we're showing how connected we are."
Employers are taking note. Jeff Galvin, chief executive of American Gene Technologies, a biotech company based nearby, came to the Thursday event to pledge that industries want "to soak up all the great graduates from around here."
Aspects of Shady Grove echo the feel of a typical university campus. Academic buildings flank a central green. There is a bookstore, a counseling center, a fitness center, a cafeteria. At the end of the school year, graduating students attend commencements at their respective universities around the state. They also come to a graduation celebration at Shady Grove.
"It brings almost tears to your eyes to sit in that room and look at the diversity of graduates," said William "Brit" Kirwan, a former Maryland system chancellor, who pushed for the expansion of Shady Grove. "It's what America looks like. It's happening there in Montgomery County, and it's a beautiful thing to see."
The new building, the fourth for the campus, was designed by architects from Cooper Carry in collaboration with Lake Flato. Montgomery County provided crucial aid for the project, officials said, by funding a $20 million garage to replace a parking lot that disappeared because of the construction.
The six-floor building is stocked with what officials say is the latest lab equipment. There are 20 dental chairs and four surgical offices for a dental clinic, scheduled to open in January, to serve the local community under the supervision of faculty from the University of Maryland at Baltimore. There are 20 teaching labs, including one for U-Md. engineering students to study embedded systems and the internet of things. Two lecture halls seat at least 120 students apiece.
Edelstein, who is retiring at the end of the school year, said it will probably take a decade for the campus to grow to 7,000 or more students. On Thursday, he met two from Montgomery College who want to come to Shady Grove next fall. Bhairavi Bandekar, 18, born in India, said she aims to study political science and education. Jose Mancia, 20, a native of El Salvador, wants to study computer networking and cybersecurity.
Bandekar, who lives in Gaithersburg, a few miles north, said Shady Grove is appealing because it is close by and has "the same opportunities" students might find elsewhere. "You can access so many universities here," she said.