So far, 100 Payson High School students have received free or nearly free college classes — thanks to an innovative partnership involving Payson Unified School District, Gila Community College and the Aspire Arizona Foundation.
Last week, the district gave the board of the private Aspire Arizona its latest “Heroes of Education” award.
Aspire Arizona has so far provided about $50,000 in scholarships to Payson students to cover the tuition for 200 classes.
The foundation provides $200 per class, which covers most of the tuition. The district and the college also contribute to make the classes as free as possible for the families.
The juniors and seniors at Payson High School have classes on campus, taught either by GCC faculty or district teachers with a master’s degree qualified to teach college classes. One-third of those students have taken two classes and 6 percent have taken three. This semester, Aspire Arizona will cover an additional $15,000 in tuition costs.
Aspire Arizona was established by the MHA Foundation. The main goal originally was to raise money to provide scholarships for students attending the proposed university campus in Payson. But while waiting for backers to find a university partner, the Aspire board decided to get started helping local students attend college.
Aspire is raising money and also relying on money provided by the MHA Foundation, which raises money and last year received a $40 million endowment in conjunction with essentially selling the Payson Regional Medical Center to Banner Health Systems.
The dual credit college classes for high school students not only give teenagers a taste of college standards and demands, they give those students a jump on getting college classes for free. Once upon a time, the state’s three public universities charged only minimal tuition. But as costs rose, the Legislature dramatically reduced taxpayer support for the universities — causing tuition to double and then redouble. It now costs nearly $10,000 a year just for tuition at Arizona State University.
The soaring costs have priced many students out of the market for a college degree.
Between 50 and 70 percent of Payson families qualify as low income — making college almost unattainable for many students.
However, the Aspire Arizona program could enable students to amass almost a year of college credits by the time they graduate — slashing the ultimate cost of a college degree by 25 percent for Payson families.
The classes covered so far include chemistry, math, English and Spanish.
“These courses increase the rigor and help students prepare for higher education,” said PUSD Superintendent Greg Wyman at the last board meeting.
“I want to thank the Aspire board and GCC for their hard work and dedication. Not only have they helped our students start on the path to higher education, but they’ve helped families with the cost.
“Truly, it takes a village to raise a child.”
“All of the AAS board members are extremely happy to help these students aspire,” said Janet Vidnovic, treasurer of the Aspire board. “We have the funds in hand. In the fall we’ll be doing some fundraising. So you’ll be hearing more about this as we reach out to the community — this has been a win, win, win.”