The numbers are way down, but Pima Community College opened its doors on a new era Monday morning.
Enrollment for the fall semester stood at 400 students, compared to 1,200 students who took courses at the Payson campus of Eastern Arizona College last year. The decline in enrollment was not unexpected.
"I predicted enrollment would be lower than last year because some young people especially could not wait to decide where they were going to school," Barbara Ganz, provost of Gila County Community College Programs, said. "I'm sorry that happened, but there was a lot going on and it just didn't work out in a timely manner that worked for all people."
Ganz also pointed out that several hundred EAC-Payson students were only enrolled in wellness center courses last year.
"We're running the wellness center a different way now, so that makes the numbers hard to compare," she said.
While fall semester classes began Monday, students can still register through this week.
Gila County parted ways with EAC in July when the county board of supervisors voted unanimously not to approve a new one-year contract. Because the county does not meet state requirements to form a regular community college district of its own, it is required by state law to partner with another district to operate the Payson and Globe campuses and the Hayden-Winkelman and San Carlos education centers.
After holding talks with several community college districts, Gila County settled on Pima Community College last month, citing expanded academic opportunities for Gila County residents.
"They have many more courses, certificates and degree programs that can be brought to Gila County," Ganz said. "They also bring multiple delivery systems, which is important to a rural community college. We will be offering a combination of on-site courses and Internet courses, and in the future, we will be able to offer interactive television courses."
Because the fall semester, which is starting several weeks late, will only last 13 weeks, classes will run longer to make up for the lost time.
"The state as well as the accrediting agency requires a (specific) number of minutes per semester, so what we did was increase the number of minutes per session," Ganz said. "Instead of a 50-minute hour, we will have a 65-minute hour for just the fall semester."
Non-credit courses a new option
Ganz admitted that a tuition increase from $32 to $39 and charging seniors full tuition are probably factors in the lower enrollment. EAC allowed people 55 years of age and older to take classes for free.
The county is working on a solution to the seniors tuition problem, according to Ganz.
"We plan to provide a number of shorter term non-credit classes that do not have to meet the tuition requirements of Pima Community College," she said. "These classes will be specifically geared to the interests of our community and be at a much lower cost."
A limited non-credit program will be offered this semester, including a much-requested class in bridge. The fees for such non-credit classes will depend on the specific course.
Ganz pointed out that EAC is the only community college in the state that doesn't charge seniors tuition, and that the practice is misleading.
"(Seniors) may not have paid it at the counter when they registered, but they paid it in the form of taxes," she said. "In fact, because we also paid out-of-county tuition to Graham County, we really paid twice."
Pat Pezzelle, new program manager for Pima Community College, agreed.
"The illusion was free," he said. "The reality was not."
Both Ganz, who now works for Gila County, and Pezzelle also emphasized the need for the Rim Country Learning Center, which the Payson campus is now called, to provide a balance in course offerings so it meets the community's needs in terms of occupational programs, transfer programs and the fine arts.
"There are people in our community who thrive on lifelong learning, and there's a strong element in Payson that loves the arts and wants to pursue their own talents," Ganz said.
"Barbara and I are on the same page with that," Pezzelle said.
"I really want people who are pursuing certificates and degrees to get what they need, but we are a community college so at the same time we need to be real sensitive to people who are taking classes just for personal development and because they're lifelong learners."
Proposition 400 a must
Ganz also emphasized the importance of the decision Gila County voters face in the Nov. 5 general election on creating a provisional community college district. While the county would still be required by state law to partner with another district, becoming a provisional district would enhance local control through the creation of a board of directors and would save $1 million in out-of-county tuition.
"I do not perceive any downsides from an operational perspective," Ganz said. "(Forming a provisional district) is such a win-win for the community and for education."
She emphasized that taxes will not increase if the measure, which will appear on the ballot as Proposition 400, passes.
"Proposition 400 mentions a maximum primary property tax levy limit, but it's only there because state law requires it," Ganz said.
Students can register at the college, which is located at Highway 260 and Mud Springs Road, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. through this week.
For more information, call 468-8039.