While almost eight out of 10 area high school juniors and seniors plan to go on to college, only two of 10 plan to attend Gila Community College in Payson, according to data from the Northern Gila County Higher Education Needs Assessment (HENA).
HENA was a communitywide survey offered in the fall under the Arizona Public Service's Focus Future program.
The survey was conducted in the belief that the results of the assessment would significantly benefit the Payson campus of Gila Community College by clearly establishing the higher education priorities of the community.
The reason local college-bound youth did not consider Payson's community college as an option varied widely in focus groups, but class availability, instruction and scheduling ranked high, Don Crowley said to Kiwanians at a recent presentation to the club.
Just over half of the 67 senior students who took the survey were neutral as to their impression of the college. Favorable and unfavorable were a close balance at 24 and 23 percent respectively.
Forty-six percent of faculty and 25 percent of parents had favorable impressions of GCC's courses and programs.
After HENA was tabulated, two recommendations came to the forefront.
First, the college should designate a representative to coordinate college and Payson Unified School District programs.
Secondly, the college must provide consistent scheduling of required general education courses.
"There were two reasons potential students, both work force and high school seniors, said they went elsewhere for college," said Peter Kettner, one of the HENA's creators and a former college board chairman.
One, they signed up for a class, but there were not enough students, so the class was dropped.
This first reason led to the second reason potential students might head to the Valley. Many classes for an associate degree need to be taken in steps, so when a class is not given in the sequence a student requires, they head elsewhere.
This inability to earn an associate degree in two years is part of the reason citizens do not have the affinity for their college that other small towns do, Kettner said.
High school students are not the only students affected by which college courses are available locally.
The Rim County has a high population of senior citizens, many of whom take advantage of higher education.
Employers and their employees are another group of people who are often in search of higher education to make a better living and be more competitive.
The arts community was also represented in HENA's survey.
Computers, social and physical sciences, foreign languages and art and music courses were the most desired classes by those survey participants who were 55 and older.
"Seniors were as interested in young people getting the courses they needed as they were in taking courses themselves," Crowley said.
Surveys and focus groups separated employees and employers.
Only one-third of those surveyed in the business category had any experience with GCC.
Almost two-thirds of employees indicated tuition and other costs were deterrents to enrolling in classes.
Yet, 56 percent of health care industry workers were interested in career advancement courses. Health care employers' needs included medical training and a wide range of other skills.
Local real estate professionals expressed a need for academic, technical certificate and licensing courses.
Meeting the need of broad-range work force education will require a stronger relationship between the college and the business community.
High-tech delivery methods such as interactive television and online courses, perhaps in conjunction with "the power of three," the state universities could enhance such courses.
The arts and cultural recommendations were full of hope for the college's potential, Crowley said.
A 1,200-seat performing arts center could provide a venue for music and theatrical performances within the 53-acre GCC campus. The addition of a theater could support a drama department that the college currently lacks.
The lack of financial resources available for higher education in Gila County highlights the failure of the community college structure.
Northern Gila County contains 73 percent of the assessed valuation on property taxes, which pays for the community college. Central and Southern have 27 percent.
However, the Payson campus only receives 41 percent of the budget and nearly a third of that is overhead.
Gila, Greenlee, Apache and Santa Cruz counties are left entirely out of the community college system in the state.
The HENA survey concludes that "a more coherent college structure with districts covering all areas of the state is an immediate need in Arizona."
Such a structure "holds a lot of promise," Kettner said.
"We must urge our legislators to end the higher education disenfranchisement of Gila and the other three ‘have-not' counties," reads the survey. The next step for those who worked on HENA, according to Kettner, is to decide which recommendations are short, interim and long-term needs, then as a board member, Don Crowley can bring them to the attention of the GCC board.
If any group would like a member of HENA to speak at a meeting, contact Don Crowley at (928) 472-7001.