The Universities at Shady Grove campus on May 11, 2016, in Rockville, Md. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

It would be easy to mistake the Universities at Shady Grove as a flagship public school, with its red-brick buildings and its state-of-the-art labs, library and fitness center.

But Shady Grove is a program unlike any other, with nine state universities converging at the Rockville, Md., campus, part of an effort that began 16 years ago to reduce college costs, produce an educated workforce and encourage college completion among populations that traditionally struggle to get their ­degrees.

Public universities and colleges are grappling with how to serve a growing population of students with limited resources in the face of paltry state investment in higher education. ­Cooperative programs, such as the one at Shady Grove, draw on the strengths of regional colleges and respond to demands for workforce development.

“It’s a very innovative model,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “You have a public institution responding to market conditions in a way that expands access.”

Shady Grove offers a way for community college students to transfer into undergraduate programs at nine of the 12 schools in the University System of Maryland, including the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, Bowie State, Towson and the state flagship in College Park.

Menaza Lankeshi Fernando, a University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business student who attends the Universities at Shady Grove. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Each school has its own office on campus and individual banners raised high above the quad. Shady Grove serves more than 4,000 students in 80 undergraduate and graduate certificate and degree programs.

All classes are held in Rockville and taught by professors from the partner schools, so a student seeking a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Maryland Baltimore County can earn the degree without ever setting foot in ­Catonsville.

That kind of convenience was appealing to Nyenpu Faith Kamei, 21, a Germantown resident getting a degree in social work and psychology from UMBC. Staying close to home was important for Kamei because of the money she could save by living with her parents.

“If I had to move to Baltimore or drive there every day, it would cost a lot more than I could afford,” said Kamei, who emigrated from Liberia with her family 11 years ago. “I live about 10 minutes from here, so you can’t beat that.”

Students pay the tuition their home school charges, but they spend less on fees tied to facilities, parking and athletics. By spending two years at Montgomery College before heading to Shady Grove, students can save an average of $8,000 on tuition and fees. More than half the students on campus borrow to finance their education, but the numbers have been decreasing as Shady Grove has provided more scholarship money, according to the school.

With one year left until graduation, Kamei has spent a total of $1,000 on her education. A combination of federal Pell grants and scholarships has covered the cost of Montgomery College and UMBC.

Three-quarters of Shady Grove’s undergraduates transfer from Montgomery College, in part because the community college and the campus launched a program — called Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success (ACES) — to make it easier for minority and low-income students to earn a bachelor’s degree.

Students study for finals in the Universities at Shady Grove library. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Maryland saves an estimated $14,000 for each student who transfers to Shady Grove from community college as opposed to heading to a four-year university directly out of high school. The transfer system requires less funding for facilities, on-campus support and other expenses involved in running a large ­campus.

Students must get accepted to one of the partner schools, but once they’re in, they have a better chance of graduating through Shady Grove than if they had transferred directly to the school. The program has a 75 percent graduation rate for transfer students, the highest in Maryland’s university system and higher than the 58 percent national average.

“Students who come here are following a career track and have made the decision that they want to be a nurse, they want to be an accountant,” said Stewart Edelstein, executive director of the Universities at Shady Grove. “They’re very focused on getting their degree.”

Edelstein said the average undergraduate at Shady Grove is 27 years old. Many are working professionals looking to change careers, while others come through the community college pipeline from high school. Although the school offers online courses, a majority of students attend classes on campus. About half the student body is enrolled full time, he said.

Because Shady Grove was born out of a desire to meet workforce demand, the campus has become a feeder for many of the county’s top employers, including Marriott, Lockheed Martin and Adventist Healthcare. Edelstein said that 1,650 of the region’s employers have looked to Shady Grove for hiring needs and sometimes work with the campus to develop curriculum.

He said many students take advantage of internship programs or clinical rotations. Kamei, who plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work at Shady Grove, will spend her final year in the UMBC program working for Family Services, a social services nonprofit organization.

Her classmate, Menaza Lankeshi Fernando, a junior pursing an accounting degree from the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business, is gearing up for her summer internship at Aronson, a financial services firm in Rockville.

Originally from Sri Lanka, Fernando discovered her passion for financial services while in the Macklin Business Institute honors program at Montgomery ­College.

“It’s so diverse. It has this power to solve global problems, and you can really create meaningful change,” she said. “Accounting is the language of business, so I wanted to get a better understanding of it.”

Fernando, who received a full scholarship from College Park to attend Shady Grove, has already completed two other internships working for the county council and at another accounting firm. Both she and Kamei plan to remain in Montgomery County after college.

Satellite campuses have been a popular way for colleges and universities to provide students a chance to study in another city or offer degree programs at remote locations.

The University of California and New York University, for instance, have locations in the nation’s capital for students studying government policy.

Higher education experts say no other university systems, however, have satellite programs on the same scale or complexity of Shady Grove. Some of that might have to do with the dynamics of the region and Maryland’s university system, said Nassirian, of the state college association.

“You have a very large market that all of the schools are interested in, and they offer different programs and bring different strengths,” he said, noting that those conditions have to be in place for the model to really work. “It could be replicated, but it wouldn’t work everywhere.”

Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior policy analyst in the education policy program at New America, said it might also be difficult to replicate the model in states where individual colleges have more autonomy or different forms of governance.

Public universities may still find it useful to examine the Shady Grove model, she said, as they look for cost-effective ways to remain competitive, especially as state investment in higher education remains tenuous.

“This is really smart state policy because it’s a way of expanding the options for students without asking each institution to develop and approve new programs,” McCarthy said. “It’s a way to leverage resources and not reinvent the wheel at every state institution.”